New York Higher Education Experts Are Hopeful that New Governor Kathy Hochul will Continue the State’s Efforts on Making Colleges More Affordable

Updated Aug 18, 2021

Next week, Kathy Hochul will make history as the first female governor of New York following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment. Dr. Terri Watson, a professor of Educational Leadership at the City College of New York (CUNY) is excited to see what she might bring to the New York higher education scene. 

“She is a friend of higher education,” said Watson. “She understands real world problems coming from a working-class background.”

Watson believes that Hochul’s experience as a working student and young parent has had a positive influence on her policymaking. 

Back in 2012, Hochul introduced the Workforce-Read Educate America Act hoping to create partnerships between local businesses and local schools. She also voted in support of the state’s Excelsior Scholarship, also known as the “Free Tuition” program.  New York Lt. Governor Kathy HochulNew York Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul

The program was created under Gov. Cuomo back in 2017, and sought to provide middle-class families that make less than $125,000 a year the opportunity to attend any CUNY, State University of New York (SUNY), or two- and four-year colleges tuition free. Watson believes that programs like this will not only benefit students and families but also the local economy. 

According to a report done by labor market data company Emsi, CUNY's City College added $1.9 billion to its local economy and supported over 16,000 jobs from 2017 to 2018. The study also found that for every dollar the state invested in students, taxpayers would eventually receive $3 in return during the students’ careers after graduation.

“The Excelsior program can show other states how to do this so we can be part of the change,” said Watson. “I think we can be a national model.”

The application for the 2021-22 academic year is now open. However, to qualify for the program, students will need to enroll full-time and complete 30 credits every year. Students will also need to live and work in New York after completing their degree for the length of time they receive the scholarship. Otherwise, they will have to pay back part of the funds they received through the program. Because of these criteria, Dr. Ann Marcus, a professor of Higher Education at NYU Steinhardt, sees the Excelsior program as “probably the worst program in the country.”

report done by the Center for an Urban Future shows that CUNY students only received about 16 percent of the Excelsior funds despite making up 39 percent of students enrolled in New York’s state universities.

“Most community college students are not full-time. They can’t afford to be full-time so they’re not eligible for Excelsior,” said Marcus.

She went on to explain that Excelsior is also a “last dollar” program, meaning that it only covers tuition not already funded by financial aid. 

“If your tuition is $5,000 and you have a federal grant that covers $4,000, then you might only get $1,000[from the scholarship],” said Marcus.

The scholarship also doesn’t cover expenses for books, transportation and housing that many low-income students desperately need. 

The scholarship "was planned in a few days with no real input from people in the higher education sector,” said Marcus.

With a new governor in the office next week, Marcus hopes that Hochul could appoint a panel to reexamine the program and include more educators in the discussion. She believes that not having appropriate consultation has always been Cuomo’s weakness.  She noted that his appointment of Dr. Jim Malatras, a former advisor of the governor, as the Chancellor of SUNY was also criticized for the lack of a public search process.

With Hochul vowing a new leadership style, both Watson and Marcus are hopeful for the future of higher education in New York. Watson looks forward to seeing the new governor continuing the state’s efforts in making colleges more affordable for students with programs like the $125 million student debt forgiveness program passed last month. 

“I’m hoping that she continues Cuomo’s debt relief program to ensure that CUNY remains accessible to hard-working New Yorkers,” said Watson.