New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, now offering tuition-free public college to students from families making up to $125,000 a year is “deeply flawed,” and the $119 million the state now budgets for Excelsior would be better spent on expanding the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for lower-income students, according to a report issued today by the Empire Center for Public Policy.

The report – entitled “Excelsior Illusion: Getting Real about ‘Free’ College in NY” – takes issue with Governor Cuomo’s claim that the Excelsior program was needed to deal with a broad college affordability crisis in New York. Excelsior is designed to eliminate tuition charges for eligible full-time students aiming for two- and four-year degrees at State University (SUNY) and City University (CUNY).

In his January 2017 rollout of the Excelsior proposal, the governor described college as “incredibly expensive,” citing average debt of $30,000 that he compared to “starting a race with an anchor tied to your leg.” But E.J. McMahon, Empire Center’s research director and author of “Excelsior Illusion,” said the governor’s “portrayal of a broad college affordability crisis afflicting middle-class New Yorkers was greatly exaggerated, for SUNY and CUNY students in particular.”

“Dubious premises aside,” McMahon writes, “the Excelsior Scholarship is deeply flawed in several respects. It is regressive, offering a benefit that has more net value to students with higher incomes; it is administratively cumbersome; and it shuts out the large share of New York high school graduates who choose colleges in the state’s exceptionally large private sector.”

“Excelsior Illusion” includes a capsule profile of the state’s higher education sector – which is the third largest in the country, bolstered by the largest concentration of private independent colleges and universities in any state. Private colleges educate more four-year New York undergraduates than SUNY and CUNY combined, double the national average, the report says, and the oversized private institutional role in New York has long been reflected in bipartisan support for TAP’s broad eligibility standards, the report notes.

The report describes TAP, which provides means-tested aid to students at both private and public colleges, as “a time-tested, well-funded college tuition aid program that is better designed to provide support where it is most needed.” Combined with federal Pell grants and institutional aid, TAP has provided a tuition-free or heavily discounted college education to generations of low-income New Yorkers over the past 45 years, but its value in real terms has fallen far below the peak levels of 1990, the report says.

The report concludes: “Beyond student aid, New York officials need to resist ‘free college’ sloganeering and focus on broader programmatic and budgetary priorities for the entire higher education sector, long a strategic asset for the state, which will be facing stiffer demographic and financial headwinds in the decade ahead.”

The Empire Center, based in Albany, is an independent, not-for-profit, non-partisan think tank dedicated to promoting policies that can make New York a better place to live, work and raise a family.

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