Excelsior comes from a Latin word that, as Wikipedia explains, can be translated "ever upward" or "still higher."
Unfortunately, "ever upward" or "still higher" will be the college loan trajectory of many students who avail themselves of Governor Andrew Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship Program.
Cuomo's plan to expand college education, allegedly without adding more debt, has won praise from Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians and is now law. But like a lot of other "free" stuff, it is hardly free. In this instance, it is the students, not taxpayers, who will pick up the tab.
Milton Ezrati of the Center for Human Capital at the University of Buffalo explains in today's New York Post:
Contrary to Cuomo’s claims, the program does little to make college “free.” It offers a maximum grant of just $5,500, less than the state system’s already-low college tuition of about $6,400.
If a student has other scholarship monies at his or her disposal, such as Pell Grants, Excelsior will make up the difference, but only for tuition — leaving the student dependent on other resources for room, board, books, transportation and daily expenses. For students at public universities, these additional costs are by far the greatest.
Further, Excelsior stipulates that students receiving monies maintain a course load of at least 30 credit-hours a year, a heavier load than most full-time students carry these days. It demands that recipients work in New York after graduation for at least as many years as they enjoyed their Excelsior Scholarship.
If the student fails to meet these and other requirements, he or she must repay the Excelsior monies on a prorated basis.
The program will tempt many into debt that they would not otherwise incur. The problem: Excelsior will discourage needy students from working their way through college, as they have in the past, by making room in their schedule for employment and taking a year or two longer than the usual four to earn their degrees. Because the scholarship terms dictate at least 30 credit-hours per year, only the most dedicated and prudent students will manage to incorporate work into their routine.
Rather than give up the benefit, many others will turn to debt, borrowing for the bulk of their expenses.
Since "any deviation" from the conditions of the scholarship makes it a loan, a student who has a family crisis that forces her to take time off could end up in serious debt. I know a bright and motivated young person who is saddled by serious debt because of having taken advantage of a government grant program that went awry. Ezrati also points out that New York's public institutions of higher education, confronted with applications from Excelsior Scholarship students, who will not be paying, might be tempted to admit more and more out-of-state students who will pay higher tuition.
Ezrati's point about working one's way through college deserves to be highlighted. Given the high cost of a college degree nowadays, few are able to do this. Plans to make college education affordable should focus on ways to make it affordable–not ways to help people who can't afford it go into debt. Reducing the flow of government cash into colleges might help: if money is not flowing in, colleges would have to make adjustments. If they do this, they might be able to make tuition more competitive.
What then is the likely achievement of the Excelsior program? As Ezrati notes, it will "enhance [Gov. Cuomo's] progressive profile."
But at what a cost.