Have you ever wished student loans didn’t exist, that college was free and you didn’t have to jump through hoops to get there? You wouldn’t be alone if you have. Many middle class families can’t afford to pay full tuition costs but also don’t qualify for many scholarships or grants that low-income families do. In New York, there might be an answer: the Excelsior Scholarship.

Claiming to be the first “accessible college program,” the Excelsior Scholarship helps middle class families curb the costs of tuition. Though it claims to provide free college to New York students, in reality it falls short. In fact, some students expecting to reap the benefits of the Excelsior Scholarship may get burned instead. For each benefit, opponents are identifying downfalls.

How does it work?

The Excelsior Scholarship was built to supplement current available scholarships and grants. This means that once a student has exhausted other scholarship and grant options by going through the FAFSA and TAP application processes, they can apply for the Excelsior Scholarship to cover the remaining tuition costs.

Because of the way the Excelsior Scholarship works, low-income students don’t benefit as much as middle class students. Low-income students qualify for more scholarships and grants than middle-class students, which means that middle-class students will get more money from the Excelsior Scholarship.

Additionally, since the Excelsior Scholarship only covers tuition, low-income students will need to look elsewhere to cover costs for living expenses, textbooks and college fees — either by taking out loans or working jobs that take time away from study — whereas middle-class students will be better positioned financially to cover those costs.

Who is eligible?

The Excelsior Scholarship has some very concrete eligibility guidelines, including the following:

  • SUNY or CUNY admission
  • Family income not exceeding $125k/year
  • Full-time undergraduate enrollment in 2-year or 4-year program
    • Students must complete 30 credits/year
    • Students must maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0
  • In-state employment for a minimum time matching the length of the program from which the student graduated.
    • For example, a student who graduated from a 4-year college program must work in New York state for four years after completing the degree.

If any student loses eligibility, the scholarship converts to a loan and they are responsible for paying the balance.

For some these eligibility requirements make sense. The requirement to complete the program in the allotted time is backed by research saying that students are more likely to complete their degree if they do so quickly. But in reality, most students take extra time to finish their undergraduate degree. (There are hardship provisions allowing a break in the middle of the program, but that comes with its own eligibility requirements.)

Is it enough?

Many consider this a great first step toward tuition-free college. However, it’s very likely that the majority of students will still graduate with debt, with or without the ability to pay it off. It appears that for the foreseeable future, it’s still a good idea to be proactive about student loan debt and seek help if it becomes too much to handle.