Governor Cuomo's budget director confirmed Tuesday that CUNY and SUNY schools will have the option to award his new free tuition scholarship by random lottery if demand exceeds supply.
"It's just in case, for some strange reason, there is not sufficient capacity with the appropriation," said budget director Robert Mujica. "We think there is going to be plenty."
The relevant section of the bill reads [emphasis added]:
The president may establish: (a) an application deadline and (b) a method of selecting recipients if in any given year there are insufficient funds to cover the needs of all the applicants provided that priority shall be given to eligible applicants who are currently in attendance at a public institution of higher education.
6. Rules and regulations. The corporation is authorized to promulgate rules and regulations, and may promulgate emergency regulations, necessary for the implementation of the provisions of this section including, but not limited to, the criteria for distributing the awards, which may include a lottery or other form of random selection.
Mujica added that similar language has been included in other scholarships, like the State's Loan Forgiveness Program and STEM. But student advocates at CUNY have countered that the provision is one of too many stipulations. Eligible students must maintain a 3.0 GPA and complete 30 credits per year, and live and work in-state for at least two years after graduation (otherwise the grant converts to a loan).
"The whole thing should have come with a 'while supplies last' caveat," said Erik Forman, a current ESL teacher for CUNY and organizer with a new campaign to make CUNY entirely tuition-free.
The State has earmarked $87 million for the Excelsior Scholarship for the 2017-2018 school year, and plans to increase that investment to $163 million by year three. Full scholarships will be accessible to families making up to $100,000 annually in fall 2017, $110,000 annually in 2018, and $125,000 annually in 2019.
According to Mujica, the $87 million is expected to accommodate about 22,000 people in its first year across four-year and community colleges. That estimate assumes an average scholarship of $4,500 per year per student, and is based on a projection of the number of full-time students in the income bracket who meet all requirements.
Part-time students, who make up a sizable percentage of both two and four-year institutions, are excluded from the scholarship. At CUNY, 44 percent of 146,234 four-year students and 40 percent of 99,045 two-year students were part time in 2015.
A 2015 Independent Budget Office report estimated that a free-tuition program for full-time students at CUNY Community Colleges alone would cost $138 million. Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor of economics and education at Teachers Colleges, predicted earlier this year that Excelsior "could easily cost two to four times" the IBO estimate.
Sudents with Free CUNY also pointed to new tuition increases written into the budget, calling Excelsior a "smokescreen." The budget includes an option for $200 increases per year at four-year CUNY and SUNY schools, for the next four years. These tuition increases would be contingent on Board of Trustee votes, a SUNY spokeswoman said; neither CUNY nor SUNY commented on whether they plan to instate the increases.
According to the Governor's Office, the State increased overall higher education funding by $448 million this fiscal year. Mujica also said that 180,000 low income students already receive free tuition at CUNY and SUNY, thanks to the state-funded Tuition Assistance Program. "Tuition is only going to up only for those who are not eligible for TAP, and now Excelsior," he said.
Spokespeople for both CUNY and SUNY stressed that the lottery would only kick in under certain circumstances.
"We need to see how actual demand increases during the summer," said SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis. CUNY spokeswoman Emily Gest said that the language is conditional, and not a requirement.
Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, said she was troubled by the lottery provision in the legislation, which would apply in "any given year there are insufficient funds to cover the needs of all the applicants."
"That to me reads as, 'If there is a budget crisis, or if more students apply, or if the cost is much larger than what the state is saying'—I read it as a way to say, 'We don't have to make everyone eligible a recipient," Karp said.
Hillary Clinton joined Governor Cuomo at a bill signing for the Excelsior Scholarship on Wednesday, calling New York a "pioneer in education."