For SUNY schools, Excelsior scholarship means an uptick in admissions

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Arches stand overhead as students at the University at Albany attend classes on Wednesday. The state university has seen a slight increase from its average number of applicants this year, particularly with transfer students, which it attributes to the state-funded Excelsior Scholarship that grants free tuition to eligible students.

GUILDERLAND — Classes began for many college students this week, including for those at the University at Albany. As a New York State public university, new students this year included many taking advantage of the state’s newly enacted Excelsior Scholarship Program.

The Excelsior Scholarship was first announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in the spring, and students were able to apply before the deadline on July 21 for a fall 2017 award.

Students whose family household income does not exceed $100,000 are eligible for up to $6,470 for the coming academic year at a State University of New York or City University of New York so long as he or she has lived in New York for at least one year prior and will complete at least 30 course credits each year. Students currently attending a state college are eligible as long as they meet the requirements.

Students must also enter into a service contract in which they agree to live in New York one year for each year of college attended, and be employed in the state for that amount of time. If a student breaks that contract, he or she will enter into a zero-interest loan to pay the remaining tuition back, said Steve Kudzin, director of financial aid at the University at Albany.

“That is an unprecedented loan,” he said.

At the University at Albany, which is located partly in the city of Albany and partly in the town of Guilderland, out of 2,725 incoming freshman, 584 were considered for an award through the program, and 309 were deemed eligible for the scholarship; out of 1,350 transfer students, 94 were considered and 55 were deemed eligible, said Kudzin.

“We have 309 students — that’s $626,000, almost $627,000, for our freshman students that we didn’t have at this point in time last year, so that’s a real significant number we have right here for our students,” said Kudzin. “And for the transfer dollars, that’s almost $109,000 dollars...right now, for the fall alone, we’re looking at about $1.6 million dollars to all of our students.”

He noted that the overall impact over the entire year would be over $3 million awarded to students.

The school is also seeing slightly more students being admitted than average. Most years, 16,700 to 17,300 students are enrolled; this year there are 17,700 enrolled.

“This is one of our biggest classes,” said Kudzin.

The 2015 acceptance rate at the University at Albany was 56 percent.

He and Michael Parker, associate director of Communications at the university, noted that the admissions cycle for students ended in March, before the scholarship was available. Of transfer students, he said there has been an 11-percent increase, which he attributes in part to the scholarship.

“We’ll see huge numbers when this goes up to $125,000 in two years,” Kudzin said, of enrollment, adding that he expects the portfolio of applicants to double.

Kudzin and Parker also attributed the increase in applicants to new programs at the school, including newly-enacted degrees in areas like cyber security.

Kudzin said that the scholarship “closes that financial gap” for middle-income students in which they or their families made too much money to qualify for scholarships like the Tuition Assistance Program but not enough to pay for tuition without taking out student loans.

“We have over 5,000 TAP recipients,” said. “And well over that number in Pell recipients as well,” he added of the subsidy for students that is federally funded.

He noted that about 44 percent receive some form of Pell grant, or about 6,000 students, although not all students will receive the maximum award of a Pell grant or a scholarship through TAP.

The average adjusted gross income, said Kudzin, is $72,000 for a student or his or her family at the university, meaning most students are eligible in terms of their income for the scholarship.

Another benefit the new scholarship motivates students to graduate in four years as part of the service contract.

“Most colleges use a six-year graduation rate,” said Kudzon. “Because they’re realizing students might have family issues that come up or might have service issues that come up...but the most important is getting the student to stay on track, to see the end.”

Kudzin added that other methods of covering tuition could now be used to cover things like housing. The university’s tuition is $6,470 for in-state students, but fees and housing add another $15,695 to the cost, and overall estimates for a student living on campus are $18,641 with tuition excluded, according to the university’s website.

Kudzin would advise any eligible students to apply, even if they are unsure about agreeing to the service contract.

“If you come down to the service agreement at the end and decide it’s not for you, that’s fine, said Kudzin. “But if you close yourself off from the the application up front, you can’t even decide to make those choices, weigh your options, in the end.”