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A group of financial aid administrators at public colleges in New York drew a surprisingly sharp rebuke last week after asking for more guidance on the state’s free-tuition program, the Excelsior Scholarship.

To some officials, the financial aid administrators drove a wedge into what is supposed to be a unified effort to make successful an ambitious free-tuition program that is only entering its second year. Others weren’t so surprised that the professionals who are charged with making the wide-ranging, complex program work for students are encountering difficulties navigating between the public universities, state agencies and politicians involved in Excelsior.

Excelsior has been closely watched as a leading example of the free college movement, one that covers students at both two- and four-year public colleges. It is also a signature achievement of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is up for re-election this year and has long been rumored as a presidential hopeful.

The program is ambitious as well, having provided tens of thousands of students with free tuition before it has even scaled up to its eventual income limit of $125,000 in the fall of 2019. It is being rolled out rapidly, having only been created by law last year. And it is complex, with its requirement that most students complete 30 credits per year, then live and work in the state for the same number of years after graduation as they received scholarships.

With all that pressure heaped on the program, were the financial aid administrators out of line? Or did officials throw the financial aid officials under the bus?

Financial aid officers have frequently pointed out over the last year that they had no go-to document outlining how they should administer the Excelsior program. Still, ask an administrator in a financial aid office about Excelsior, and a reply might come back that it required a lot of work but can be a great program for the students who qualify.

The issue of implementation vaulted into the press last week when a representative from the State University of New York Financial Aid Professionals (SUNYFAP) spoke before a meeting of the state’s Higher Education Services Corp. Board of Trustees. Sarah Buell, assistant coordinator of financial aid at SUNY Erie Community College and SUNYFAP vice president, said financial aid officers have gone months without formal written guidance, according to the Times Union.

"We are essentially, in our 64 campuses, establishing 64 different versions of this program," Buell said.

HESC’s president acknowledged that putting the program in place was an enormous task posing multiple challenges. Other officials soon issued critical statements.

The Times Union quoted a Cuomo spokesman saying that it is shocking that financial aid officers don’t yet understand the program. The day after the HESC meeting, SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson issued a statement calling the program a great success with increasing applications -- and taking the financial aid administrators to task.

"Yesterday, misstatements were aired by a handful of financial aid administrators about the process in implementing the program," Johnson’s statement said. "Unofficial statements such as these create unnecessary confusion and are not productive in ensuring that this scholarship benefits as many students as possible. We are pleased with our strong partnership with the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation and the multitude of resources they continue to provide."

Then on Saturday, the Times Union reported that financial aid officers had been instructed not to answer media questions about Excelsior. Instead, they were directed to refer to Johnson's statement.

Pressed on what specific misstatements had been aired at the meeting, a SUNY spokeswoman pointed to the comments about 64 campuses establishing 64 different versions of the program and the idea that financial aid administrators were not receiving information they needed from HESC.

But when Buell spoke, she said that HESC had been answering questions. Inquiries for guidance were sent via email and answered by HESC staff members, and that guidance was then disseminated by listserv from colleague to colleague, Buell said, according to a recording of the HESC board meeting. When she starts speaking, Buell says she will read a statement from the SUNYFAP president, then thanks "our colleagues at HESC," referencing them "providing support, putting in long hours and offering unwavering professional responses to questions during Excelsior’s first year."

Her point appeared to be that financial aid administrators were receiving guidance in an inefficient way.

"It is extremely cumbersome, and it is difficult to refer back or look to the guidance at a later date, and there is no efficient way to track down what the most recent guidance is," she said. She went on to detail a history of the group asking for formal, written, comprehensive guidance covering the Excelsior program.

Without more guidance to fall back on, financial aid administrators are left telling students they "believe" HESC will take certain actions or that students will be eligible. That strains their relationships with families, Buell said.

Buell declined comment when reached by email Friday.

Cuomo’s office maintains that the program is being rolled out with coordination. It provided a 21-bullet list of fact sheets, FAQs, in-person training for financial aid professionals, webinars and HESC bulletins. The list included a guidance document issued in July of last year addressing questions such as when to charge 2016 to 2017 tuition, when to charge "current year" tuition, how to calculate an Excelsior award and the conditions impacting scholarship recipient’s eligibility.

"The state is working in lockstep with school administrators and financial aid officers -- offering webinars, conference calls, regular bulletins and memos -- to ensure they have the necessary guidance to implement this first-in-the-nation program, and we will continue those efforts until every eligible student is enrolled in our free-tuition scholarship," a spokesperson in the governor’s office said in a statement.

From the moment of Excelsior’s creation, policy wonks and groups concerned with higher education have wondered how easily its many moving parts could be put into play on short notice in the real world. Several were unsurprised to hear about the flare-up over guidance for financial aid administrators.

"It was rolled out so quickly, and really, it was confusing to so many students," said Marissa Martin, Northeast Director for the group Young Invincibles, which supports policies to expand accessibility to higher education. "Even now, I’m sure financial aid administrators and schools are getting used to the process."

The issue with financial aid administrators echoes other concerns Young Invincibles has flagged with Excelsior, like the program’s requirements that students complete 15 credits per semester to remain eligible and the fact that it is a last-dollar program that doesn’t go to non-tuition-related costs like textbooks. While important exceptions were added to many of the program’s requirements, Martin expressed continued unease with the credit requirement at a time when more and more students in New York State and New York City are nontraditional students who may have to work part time.

She also pointed out that this is not the first time someone has raised concerns about the level of resources available for putting Excelsior in place on such a tight timeline.

"We were saying this is an issue," Martin said. "There are not enough counselors, advisors, financial aid and regular counselors to support a rollout of this program in a real way that ensures students succeed."

Some problems could have been anticipated, said Yan Cao, a fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive group. Those problems include those with Excelsior and with a public financial aid program for private colleges that was enacted alongside it, called the Enhanced Tuition Awards (ETA) program.

"It's no surprise that financial aid professionals are voicing frustration with the implementation of the Excelsior and ETA programs," she said in a statement. "The promise of ‘free college’ is a visionary idea, but, as the Century Foundation has reported, the devil is in the details. In this past year, the roll-out of Excelsior and ETA has left existing participants from public and private non-profit colleges confused, even as policymakers have rushed to expand the program to include the problematic for-profit college sector."

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