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High School Seniors Scramble to Incorporate Free Tuition Into Future Plans

Host Intro: Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced free tuition by 2019 at state colleges for New York students whose parents earn less than $125,000. The program starts immediately for families making less than $100,000.

Cuomo: And the way this society said ‘We’re going to pay for high school because you need high school,’ this society should say ‘We’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful.’    

New York high school seniors are in the final weeks of seniors trying to decide where they’ll go next year. For many considering this new scholarship, it’s time to read the fine print. Mike Elsen-Rooney reports.

Elsen-Rooney : In six days, seniors at Park Slope Collegiate high school have to submit their final decisions to their college counselor. Zandra Cuevas’s classroom is always crowded around this time of year, full of kids researching colleges and majors. But this year, Cuevas has been extra busy explaining the new free tuition plan.

Cuevas: OK, so let me explain this four-year tuition thing, the free tuition. If you get full financial aid, it does not matter whether college is free or not because it’s going to be free for you anyway. It’s for the people, that, they don’t get full financial aid.

Elsen-Rooney: Most of the students in Cuevas’s room already receive full financial aid. In New York, students whose families make under about $45,000 a year get a combination of federal Pell grants and money from the state Tuition Assistance Plan to cover tuition at state schools. The Excelsior Scholarship at families that make between 45 and $100,000.

Alonso: Oh I was elated, I was like, this is the best thing in the world.

Elsen-Rooney: Jaida Alonso is a senior at Park Slope Collegiate who qualifies for the scholarship. Her mom works as a school nurse, and Alonso got some money from Pell grants, but not enough to cover tuition. For Alonso, the scholarship is a game-changer. She was going to have to choose between paying for her remaining tuition costs at Old Westbury in Long Island, or getting room and board on campus.

Alonso: I’ve always wanted to go to one of those nice colleges, dorm there, have fun with my friends, study by myself, like in study halls and stuff, I just want like the full thing, learning how to be on my own.

Elsen-Rooney: The Excelsior scholarship is not the first such bill in the country. Lisa Ganga works at the Community College Research Center at Columbia. She said similar proposals in other states have already seen results.

Ganga: A lot of states that have put in free tuition programs have seen a significant bump in the number of students who go to college, which is a good thing in and of itself.

Elsen-Rooney: But New York’s bill is the broadest. It’s the first to cover four-year schools in addition to two-year programs. But it does come with some caveats. One provision that Ganga says she hasn’t seen in other state plans is a requirement to live and work in New York after graduation. Scholarship recipients are required to stay in the state for the same number of years they used the scholarship, or that money will turn to loans.

Ganga: There is definitely concern about the residency provision where you have to stay in New York. Some people worry that that limits people’s opportunities, say someone who wants to live in New Jersey and work in New York.

Elsen-Rooney: Alonso doesn’t think that will be a problem.

Alonso: I don’t really have a problem with it because I feel like I wouldn’t want to leave New York anyway. I just want to stay here, get on my feet, learn how to be an adult.

Elsen-Rooney: And for Alonso, just fact that she can start to think about her life after college, rather than just how she’ll make the commute, is a step in the right direction.

Mike Elsen-Rooney, Columbia Radio News


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