Tens of thousands of people have applied for or expressed interest in New York's free public college tuition program since it was announced earlier this year. And now that the academic year has started and those who qualified for the Excelsior Scholarship have begun classes, some colleges and universities are beginning to see the early effects of the program.
But those impacts may depend on how much one requirement of the program -- attending full-time -- plays out at different institutions. Even though part-time enrollments predominate at many two-year institutions across the country, the opposite is true in New York State. In the City University of New York system, more than 58,000 students attended full-time last year compared to more than 26,000 part-time degree-seeking students. At the State University of New York’s 64 campuses, 54 percent of students attended full-time last year compared to 46 percent of students who attended part-time.
"Excelsior is a very new program and its impact is emerging," said Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, part of CUNY, via email. The scholarship covers families with annual incomes of up to $100,000 this year, but by 2019 it will cover students from families with incomes of up to $125,000 per year. At the state's community colleges, the income cap is not expected to be much of a factor.
LaGuardia had 494 students qualify to receive the last-dollar scholarship, of which 229 students will actually receive the award. Last dollar means students receive Excelsior after all other federal and state aid has been used. In total, nearly 2,500 students at CUNY's seven community colleges applied for the scholarship, with 1,081 students likely to receive the award.
Although the college cautions that it's too early to make direct correlations, there are some early signs pointing to a possible Excelsior effect on enrollment. Full-time enrollment at the college has increased by 5.2 percent compared to this time last year -- going from 12,641 to 13,298. At LaGuardia, 54 percent of degree-seeking students attend full-time.
New York's focus on offering free tuition to full-time students only highlights a national trend to encourage and incentivize students to pursue more than 12 credits a semester, because research has indicated that full-time status is a great indicator of graduation.
"We have seen an uptick in student interest in LaGuardia and more and more students asking about Excelsior at high school fairs and college tours," Mellow said. "It is helping to create a college-going culture."
Mellow said the program will need to be refined to fully address the needs of low-income students who can't attend full-time because they have to work or attend to other responsibilities.
But that impact on enrollments isn't visible everywhere.
"We're noticing the Excelsior Scholarship program is more beneficial for students going to four-year institutions," said Manuel Romero, executive director of public affairs for the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of CUNY. "We are continuing to promote and support Excelsior, so, of those students who self-reported [as] Excelsior eligible, we want to provide them with the information they need."
At BMCC, 772 students received the scholarship, but 68 percent of the college's students already attended full-time last year, compared to 32 percent who attended part-time.
Meanwhile, just north of Binghamton is the State University of New York's Broome Community College. That institution saw nearly 400 students qualify for the scholarship, but after other financial aid was distributed, only 185 students were awarded Excelsior. The college has more than 6,000 students.
"We haven't seen a big change yet," said Broome President Kevin Drumm.
The college averages about 60 percent full-time enrollment and 40 percent part-time, he said, adding that Broome, along with other upstate community colleges, has seen slight increases in part-time enrollments among non-degree-seeking students, but they attribute that that to the good economy.
Drumm said the larger question will be the cultural effects the scholarship will have on long-term demographics. Because despite community college being tuition-free for a long time for many low-income students, now whole families, neighborhoods and communities have gotten the "free message."
The state's legislators didn't approve the program until April, which for many students was in the middle or toward the end of their college search and application process, so many had already made decisions about whether they were going to college, Drumm said.
"Next year at this time will be much more telling, because students now have a whole year to think about it," he said. "This year the guidance offices are up to speed and families will have an entire college application season."