Free tuition program: Early calls to FMCC are positive

FM’s Swanger: Colleges still learning regulations

JOHNSTOWN –The state’s Excelsior Scholarship program has been approved in the state budget, and colleges and the public are learning more about how the program will function.

The program will see the college tuition cost paid for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. Excelsior will be phased in over three years, beginning for New Yorkers making up to $100,000 annually in the fall of 2017, increasing to $110,000 in 2018, and reaching $125,000 in 2019.

Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger said the process is still early, and there is still a lot up in the air. He said the college has been getting calls already from people who are thinking about college.

“We have had a number of calls to financial aid, asking if they were eligible,” Swanger said. “I think we can see a positive impact.”

He said the law gives the Higher Education Services Corporation –the corporation that handles financial aid –authority to pass rules and regulations to implement the scholarship.

“We don’t know all of the rules and regulations yet, because I think some will be added for administrative purposes,” Swanger said.

Swanger said the state will likely give additional information about the scholarship, or perhaps a webinar for college administrations.

He said the program could see some students who initially considered going to a community college instead going to a four- year State University of New York or City University of New York school instead.

Swanger said that SUNY and CUNY institutions should refer students who don’t get into a four-year program –especially those that are competitive — to their local community college for two years, before transferring on.

“What I think can be an advantage would be if we can work out an arrangement where if you don’t get accepted to a program of your choice at SUNY Albany [for example] … rather than just send that student a reject letter, you can say ‘We’re not accepting you this year because our program is full, but if you go to Fulton-Montgomery Community College for two years, we’ll see you when you’re a junior,'” Swanger said.

He said those types of arrangements will be important moving forward across the state.

Swanger said something that isn’t being talked about a lot is that institutions need to freeze their tuition at the current rate for anyone awarded the scholarship.

“It is frozen for four years. So every four years you are able to reset your tuition,” Swanger said. “That has a financial impact on institutions.”

The state additionally approved Enhanced Tuition Awards, which sees private college students get awards of up to $6,000. The program has the same family income limits as the Excelsior Scholarships and is being phased in the same way. These scholarships include the same post-grad residency requirements, GPA levels and credit hours and other regulations as the Excelsior Scholarships.

Swanger said that some students at community colleges may not need the Excelsior Scholarship, since it only kicks in after the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, and Pell grants, have been accounted for. He said for some students, these programs cover the entire cost of tuition at a community college. He said at community colleges, there will likely be a large number of students who don’t need the Excelsior Scholarship.

“If they are eligible for TAP and Pell and that covers the cost of going to college, the Excelsior Scholarship doesn’t kick in,” Swanger said.

He said in addition, the scholarship does not cover things such as fees, books, housing and living costs for students, only the tuition.

“The program is free tuition, not free college,” Swanger said.

Swanger said this scholarship could encourage some part-time students to evaluate if they could go full-time, since part-time students aren’t eligible for the scholarship.

To qualify for the scholarship, students must be enrolled in college full-time and average 30 credits per year, which can include the summer and winter semester, in order to receive the funding. In order to stay eligible for the program, students are required to maintain a grade point average necessary for the successful completion of their coursework.

In addition, post-grads will be required to live and work in-state for the same number of years after graduation as the length of the scholarship they received.

Swanger said staying in state after graduation has never been a regulation for the TAP funding. He said he can understand the provision from a taxpayer’s perspective, but he does not know if it would deter someone from accepting the scholarship.

Those interested in learning more about the Excelsior Scholarship can go to: 2017/03/09/enroll-summer-fall/

Kerry Minor can be reached at