Essay The Fine Print on Free College: Who Benefits from New York’s Excelsior Scholarship?
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Judith Scott-Clayton, CJ Libassi, Daniel Sparks
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Though federal efforts to enact free college have stalled, some states and individual colleges have continued to promote affordable higher education with various programs under the label of free college. New York joined the free college movement in 2017 with the Excelsior Scholarship, which covers any in-state public college tuition not already covered by other sources for students with family incomes up to $125,000. Though there is no minimum income for students to qualify, students whose tuitions are already covered by other scholarships, such as Pell grants or New York’s need-based Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) awards, do not qualify for additional funding from Excelsior. The scholarship requires that students be enrolled full time, and after college, recipients must live and work exclusively in state for as many years as they received the award; otherwise, the grant converts to a loan.

The first students to benefit from the scholarship enrolled in fall 2017 and attend various state colleges, including the community and four-year colleges of the City University of New York (CUNY). Using data from the 2018 scholarship cohort, findings show that most of the benefit goes to families earning more than the median state and New York City–wide income. Additionally, only about 25 percent of eligible students take up the Excelsior Scholarship, and only slightly more than half of Excelsior students renew the scholarship for a second year.

Key Findings

  • Among first-year CUNY students, 68 percent of Excelsior dollars flow to students with incomes at or above $70,000.
  • In 2018, only 5 percent of first-time, first-year undergraduates at CUNY received an award.
  • Only about 52 percent of the fall 2018 first-year Excelsior cohort retained the scholarship into a second year, compared with 60 percent renewal rates for Pell grants and 58 percent for TAP awards.
  • Only 8 percent of eligible community college students receive an award, compared with 31 percent of eligible students at CUNY’s four-year colleges.
  • Eligible Black and Hispanic students are about 10 percentage points less likely to receive the scholarship compared with eligible white and Asian students.

Excelsior Take-Up Is Low, Particularly for Community College Students and Black Students, Among fully eligible students in the 2018 cohort


Though Excelsior was the first statewide free college program to cover the four-year sector, the design is distinctive in several ways that affect scholarship recipients. Excelsior covers only the last dollar of tuition. This means the program targets students in a narrow window of family income, who are often above the 80th percentile of aid applicants at CUNY. Meanwhile, lower-income students still face other significant direct costs of enrollment including mandatory fees, books, meal plans, and transportation that may remain uncovered by financial aid.

Additionally, the Excelsior Scholarship has particularly rigorous enrollment and credit completion criteria for receiving and renewing the scholarship. And after graduation, students are required to work in New York for the same length of time as they received the scholarship. Some courses, such as remedial classes, that count toward full-time enrollment for other state and federal aid programs may not count toward Excelsior’s definition. Further, to renew the scholarship, students must remain on track for on-time completion, with no breaks in enrollment. As a result, nontraditional students or students who lose credits after changing schools or course of study may find themselves falling behind these on-time completion standards. If students do not stay in state or cannot maintain on-time completion standards, their grants are converted into no-interest loans, and they are expected to repay the amount they received in their most recent term.

Finally, claiming Excelsior requires students to complete three aid applications: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the state TAP grant application, and the Excelsior application. And to retain the Excelsior Scholarship into a second year, students must resubmit both the FAFSA and TAP applications each year while continuing to meet the initial Excelsior eligibility criteria regarding income, enrollment, and remaining need. The amount of required paperwork, in addition to the strict completion criteria, could play a role in the low scholarship renewal rate.

Though this analysis examines only a few program metrics, the small number of students who receive Excelsior makes it complicated to know how the scholarship affects student enrollment and completion. New York was the first state with a free college program covering both two- and four-year colleges, but other states, like New Mexico, are developing their own programs. As policymakers nationwide consider alternative models of free college, New York’s experience with Excelsior highlights a broader tension: how much fine print is too much when it comes to free college? One of the main appeals of free college was supposed to be its simplicity. But as these programs proliferate, excessive fine print may reinstate the same problem free college was supposed to solve: the fact that too many students still cannot find out the true price of college until after they decide to enroll.

Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags Higher education Paying for college
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States New York