Testimony to the Assembly Higher Education Committee on the Excelsior Scholarship
The following remarks were delivered by Austin Ostro, Chief of Staff, to the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Higher Education at its December 12, 2017 Public Hearing on the Excelsior Scholarship and the Enhanced Tuition Awards Programs.
Chair Glick, members of the Higher Education Committee. I would like to thank you for inviting the SUNY Student Assembly to testify this morning to this distinguished body. This committee’s appreciation for the student voice in the higher education policy-making dialogue has been consistent and laudable. On behalf of the Student Assembly, I would like to thank this committee for including us in this conversation, and for its broader commitment to ensuring SUNY’s sixty-four campuses are world-class, yet affordable, institutions of higher learning for New York’s working and middle class families.
My name is Austin Ostro, I am a senior at the University at Albany, and I serve as Chief of Staff of the SUNY Student Assembly. The Student Assembly is the recognized system-wide student government, supporting SUNY’s 600,000 full and part-time students. The Student Assembly advocates on the local, state, and federal levels on behalf of the collective student interest across a large range of policy areas. Twice annually, SUNYSA brings hundreds of the system’s student leaders together for our general conferences, where we establish our advocacy priorities, and student leaders have an opportunity to network and learn from one another.
Outside of our conferences, elected representatives for our four-year and community college campuses meet monthly for our Executive Committee meetings, where we review our progress in our advocacy efforts and refine our goals and strategy. The Student Assembly also serves as the vehicle for representation of the student voice on the SUNY Board of Trustees. The Student Assembly President, by statute, is a voting member of the Board… the only voting member of the Board not appointed by the Governor. The Student Assembly also operates standing committees devoted to prioritized policy areas, which have open membership for any interested student. Focuses of these committees include Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Sustainability, and Campus Safety.
The student voice is particularly important on matters of college affordability. This issue, perhaps more than any other, shapes the student experience in our system. Students across the state, and the world, choose SUNY because of its affordability while providing an excellent education. New York’s purpose in operating a public system higher education ought to be to provide a world-class education at the most affordable rate to students.
A commitment to this goal should stem from a recognition that a well-educated populace is in the public interest. Those with a college degree are more likely to participate in our democracy, to not require public assistance later in life, and to become net contributors to New York State in tax revenue. In a world where even a four-year degree is often not enough to meet the needs of an evolving labor market… having a well-educated populace in New York will attract industry to our state, and be a boon to our overall economy.
Of course, beyond the benefits to our state as a whole, achieving a higher education has tremendous benefits for an individual. Those in this country with a college degree are more likely to get and hold a job, to own their own home, to make it to the middle class, and even to live longer. Investing in public higher education, and ensuring that our system is affordable for all New Yorkers, serves to improve the quality of life for the people of our state more than almost any other possible government intervention. Ensuring SUNY is affordable, which in turn makes a higher education more available to more people, also, as demonstrated, benefits our state write large.
For these reasons, the Student Assembly applauds this committee, the legislature, and the Governor for introducing the Excelsior Scholarship. In just the first few months since the program was introduced, it has already helped put a SUNY education within reach for over 45,000 more New Yorkers. The Excelsior Scholarship has put New York at the forefront nationally in promoting college affordability and access.
There are ways though that the Student Assembly feels the program could be strengthened. One major concern relayed to us by students utilizing the program is that they felt somewhat misled by the marketing of what would be covered by the Scholarship. Many in our system believe it provide free college, not just free tuition… this would mean the scholarship covering associated costs like housing, food, and textbooks which of course it does not. In large part due to the fact that SUNY has such low base tuition relative to other states, for most students these associated costs amount to significantly more than tuition. At our University Centers for instance, students who live on campus may ultimately pay two or three times what they are paying in tuition for these associated costs.
Other financial aid programs, like the Federal Tuition Program, and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, do allow distributed funds to be used for associated costs, further confusing students. While it is unrealistic to expect a scholarship for all New Yorkers that would completely cover these associated costs, the Student Assembly does believe that there should be some allowance for funds being directed to cover these expenses. This is particularly true for students who get large Pell and TAP grants who, while being some of the neediest students in our system, do not benefit much from the Excelsior Scholarship as currently constituted.
Another concern students have expressed is that in a state with such divergent costs of living, having a statewide income eligibility standard for scholarship is not really fair. We all know that $100,000 will go much further in the North Country or Southern Tier than it will in Manhattan or on Long Island. There should be some scaling of the income threshold to help students who otherwise might not be eligible, but for whom there is need because of the cost of living in their area.
We also believe that there should be greater allowance for waiving the in-state residency and work requirement post-graduation for recipients of the scholarship. We completely understand the need for the state to recoup its investment in students receiving the scholarship, and it is harder to do that when they reside in another state. However, we believe that most students receiving the student would choose to stay in their home state anyway. We also believe that allowing SUNY’s best and brightest to succeed throughout the country, will shine a positive light on our system, and encourage more pursue their degrees here. This constitutes a return on investment from students who do not stay in New York. Furthermore, we should want our graduates to have every opportunity open to them, and to say that a SUNY grad must choose in certain instances between the best opportunity for them, and being on the hook for potentially tens of thousands of dollars, just is not fair.
These are a few of the ways that students across SUNY believe the Excelsior Scholarship could be strengthened, but these suggestions should not obscure the fact that we appreciate the progress that has been made through this program to put SUNY in reach for more students. Investing more in Excelsior, growing it, and helping more students get their degrees without accruing burdensome debt, should be the next step in furthering our collective mission to make SUNY as affordable as it can be.
The Student Assembly is always available to connect any member of the legislature with students in their district, so that they can convey to you directly what is working and what can be improved in our system. This committee has demonstrated its commitment to considering the student voice by inviting us to testify today, and continuing to engage with students, either through the Student Assembly or through campus student governments, will help inform your work in countless ways. Thank you again for the opportunity, and we look forward to seeing what the legislature will do to promote college affordability in the coming session.