Cuomo’s Cage: The Cost of New York’s Excelsior Scholarship

When I first saw that New York—my home state—had become the first state in the United States to offer free college tuition to State residents, I was sitting at my desk in my dorm room in Virginia, editing for the fourth time a sixteen-page research paper on the Dutch healthcare system.

I had less than a month until summer vacation—less than a month until I finished my first year at the University of Richmond. I had received an academic scholarship valued at 1/3 tuition, as well as a fairly significant grant, but the 2016-2017 academic year had still cost my parents and me about $24,000. The thought that, upon graduation, I will be about one hundred thousand dollars in debt is terrifying, and so when I saw that headline, I started sobbing. If I transferred to a school back in New York, I could save so much money!

I had left my native New York for a multitude of reasons. I didn’t want to live at home any longer; I didn’t want to live in NYC; I didn’t like the concept of ‘the city is your campus’ that virtually every school in New York touts; and the University of Richmond was the highest-ranked school I had been accepted to. I have not regretted my decision to leave for even a single minute; I love UR, and I love Virginia. I have the luxury of walking around a beautiful campus whenever I want, I have friends, I am the President of one club and the Vice President of another, and I am in the beginning stages of planning a semester abroad. When I first learned of the Excelsior Scholarship, I had just been asked to serve as a drill instructor in Italy and as a writing consultant on healthcare policy—both great opportunities! Could I really leave Richmond and return to the state that I had all but readily renounced as my home, simply to save money?

I have friends and former classmates scattered all throughout the state of New York—at the College of Staten Island (CSI), the College of Mount Saint Vincent, FIT, Hunter College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Kingsborough Community College, LIU Brooklyn, NYU, Pace University, St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s College, Stony Brook University, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Geneseo, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Oneonta, SUNY Oswego, and Wagner College. I had ridiculed CUNY and SUNY schools during application season, but now those students would be graduating either debt-free or nearly debt-free… whereas I would be graduating with a massive amount of debt. It wasn’t fair—but could I, or should I, swallow my pride and transfer?

Governor Cuomo’s plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, states that all New York residents whose parents’ adjusted gross income (AGI) is $100,000 or less (this cap will continue to increase until 2019, when it will stop at $125,000 AGI) will be eligible to receive the scholarship, valued at the entire cost of tuition at any community college or four-year college or university within the CUNY or SUNY school systems. Students who receive the scholarship are required to maintain a certain GPA (it varies based on the minimum GPA needed to not fail out of the school in question), complete thirty credits each year, assume responsibility for paying whatever room and board costs they might incur, and live and work somewhere within the state of New York for as many years as they were recipients of the scholarship.

The idea that the Excelsior Scholarship guarantees ‘free’ college to students is ridiculous. If we accept, we will be free to choose between a predetermined list of schools, all of which are mediocre at best (the highest-ranking school at which students are eligible to receive the scholarship is SUNY Binghamton, which held the #176 spot on Forbes’ 2016 Top Colleges list). We will also be free to choose where in the relatively-small state of New York we want to live upon graduation. If we accept, we will be as free as a caged bird. Yes, the bird can choose where in the cage he wants to sit or stand, but can he leave the cage without being punished by his owner? No. The same applies here: if an Excelsior Scholarship recipient leaves New York for a purpose other than to attend graduate school or to go into the military, they will be forced to pay back the amount awarded to them. What kind of freedom is that?

The difference in the quality of education a student receives at a school like mine versus at any school within the CUNY or SUNY systems is astounding—a quick comparison between each school’s Fast Facts webpages will be enough to see the difference. Yes, private, selective schools are expensive, and usually vastly more so than public, non-selective schools. Do I want to be spending $100,000+ on my education? Of course not! Do I want to sacrifice the quality of my education? No. Do I want to attend a school I know I’ll be miserable at, simply because doing so would cost me less? No. Do I want to live at home and forfeit my independence to save myself the costs of room and board, which I would still be responsible for paying under the Excelsior Scholarship? No. Do I want to graduate from a school whose degrees will be worth next to nothing in a decade? No. Do I want to be required to live and work in New York upon graduation? No. Do I want to graduate with the burden of knowing that I just cost New Yorkers—who are already the most overtaxed people in the country—thousands upon thousands of dollars? No!

It seems like the price of higher education in the U.S. nowadays is a debt so great it takes a lifetime to pay off, and something absolutely needs to be done to fix that—but the implementation of programs like Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship is not the answer! We are a nation built on the principle of freedom, and the cost of the Excelsior Scholarship is that which we as Americans hold most dearly: our freedom. Do we want our freedom, or do we want ‘free’ college? We have to choose one; we can’t have both. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too.

I, personally, chose to have my cake—to not return to New York, to the state I both love and hate, to the state that is slowly going to Hell in a handbasket. I’ve been criticized for choosing to take on an ‘unbearable’ amount of debt when now, thanks to Governor Cuomo, I don’t have to, but I have also been praised for choosing to invest in myself and in my future. While I would rather not invest quite so much, I’ll do anything to ensure my own freedom—and by staying in Virginia, I’m doing just that. And who knows? I can save enough money simply by not living in New York and not paying New York taxes that I can pay off these loans.

I’m an almost-nineteen-year-old college student from New York, and I have chosen not to return home and get the Excelsior Scholarship I’m eligible for. What are y’all going to do? Are you going to fly into the so-called ‘safety net’ that is Cuomo’s cage, or are you going to spread your wings and fly out into the world?

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