BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Last year Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Excelsior Scholarship law, providing tuition-free college at New York’s public universities to families making no more than $110,000 a year.
As the program enters its second year, it has created frustration on the part of many students who are struggling to gain admission to the program.
In order to be eligible, an applicant must be a New York resident and a U.S. citizen; have a high school diploma and a gross income of no more than $110,000; be enrolled in a state university of New York (SUNY) or city university of New York (CUNY) and taking at least 12 credits per term; and also have a nondefault status on a student loan under any New York or federal education loan program.
The Queens Tribune spoke with a couple of college students enrolled in the program to hear about their experience.
LaShae Jones, 19, is a freshman at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), majoring in liberal arts.
“I was accepted into the Excelsior program on March 14,” said Jones. “I was babysitting my nephew when I got the email and I almost woke him up from his nap because I was screaming of excitement.”
Jones’ father has been in jail her whole life and her mother, who is wheelchair-bound and unable to work, relies on disability checks to pay her rent and care for Jones.
“The day I graduated from high school my mom cried,” said Jones. “I thought she was crying because she was proud of me, but later on that night she told me she was crying because she felt so bad that she wouldn’t be able to pay for me to go to college.”
It was Jones’ English teacher who told her about the Excelsior Scholarship and helped her to apply.
Between financial aid, the Excelsior Program and other scholarships she qualified for because of her living situation and her high GPA, Jones not only attends school tuition free, but she doesn’t have to pay for books either.
“It’s truly a blessing,” said Jones.
Jones said if she wanted to, she could have gone to a SUNY school, but she didn’t want to leave her mother.
“I know a few people that were also accepted,” said Jones. “I’ve never been happier. The fact that I can wake up every day, go to class and truly focus on my academics without having to worry about the financial burden is the best feeling ever.”
While Jones’ experience with the scholarship is an easy and stress-free success story, thousands have been denied.
According to the Center for an Urban Future, in 2017 the state received 64,000 applicants for the Excelsior Scholarship and 44,000 were denied.
The Queens Tribune also spoke to one student at a CUNY school whose name we have changed to protect his identity. “Bill” said that when he applied, a friend of his told him that the requirements were intense and that “almost nobody gets approved.”
As a technology major with a dream of being a graphic designer, Bill decided to take a risk and edited his mother’s financial documents, altering the number of dependents in his household and making his application seem like his father, who collects roughly $75,000 a year in salary, was not a part of the household. It worked and he was approved for the scholarship
Bill said that although his family has a gross income of over $150,000, they still struggle and would not be able to pay for his tuition. His mother has four children in total; his younger siblings are 7 and 12 years old.
“My siblings play sports, and that’s not cheap,” said Bill. “My dad has children of his own and pays child support. We live in a house that my mom isn’t done paying the mortgage on. We have three cars and there are so many other bills. The main thing is I told my mom that I wouldn’t be going to college. It wasn’t until last year that I decided I would. For so many years I was that kid that was like, who cares about college? I planned to do computer work with my high school diploma and for a while it was working, but I wasn’t making the kind of money that would allow me to survive on my own.”
Bill said he was at a family function when he got a wakeup call.
“My cousin is 26 and he’s a lawyer. We were sitting in my grandma’s living room cracking jokes on each other, you know? Regular cousin stuff,” said Bill. “And out of nowhere someone says, ‘That’s why you make $400 a week and are going to live with your mom your whole life.’ I usually laugh when my family jokes on me, but I did only make $400 a week and I thought that was good money honestly. It wasn’t until that moment that I was like, I need to get my life in order.”
With his mother on a set budget, Bill said she wouldn’t have been able to put him into school until 2021, when she will be done paying her mortgage. He didn’t want to wait so he took his own route: He altered the documents and was accepted into the program, knowing full well that what he was doing was wrong, and possibly even illegal.
Although he pays no tuition given that he has both the Excelsior Scholarship and financial aid covering his total tuition cost, he said that every time he gets a call or email from the school, he panics.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen if they ever find out,” said Bill. “I’m just trying to get my degree and make a life for myself.”
Editor’s Note About Story
In this week’s newspaper, we are running a story about the state’s free college tuition program, the Excelsior Scholarship. In our story (on page 8), we have chosen to hide the identity of one student who is currently attending a CUNY school and admitted to us that he lied on his application about his family’s income in order to be eligible.
The decision before “Bill” (a name we made up to protect the person’s true identity) was a difficult one. He clearly wants to have more opportunity in his life and understands the importance of a college education in achieving his career goals. But in order to reach that goal, he has compromised his values. During the reporting of this story, Bill made it clear that he knew he had done something wrong. He also made it clear to us that he would not have been able to go to college otherwise.
We think Bill’s story is an important one to tell. However, we don’t think it is our place to reveal him to government officials, who would likely take action against him — either kicking him out of the CUNY system or taking criminal legal action against him.
As a news organization, we don’t condone illegal activity. But we also understand there are a lot of gray areas in this world where people are forced to make compromising choices to better their lives. Our goal is to truthfully tell the stories of our readers so we have a better-informed society.
In this instance, we felt protecting Bill’s identity was necessary to bring our readers the truth.
— Michael Gareth Johnson, Queens Tribune editor-in-chief and Ocean Gold executive news director