How Emergency Grants are Filling Gaps in Cuomo’s Free College Plan

Sanders Cuomo free college bros
Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the 2017 announcement in Queens of Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, which extends tuition-free college access to eligible New Yorkers. Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Despite Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s sharp disagreements in 2016, they found common ground a year later on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “free college” plan.

“It’s going to reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country,” Sanders told students and public officials attending the early 2017 announcement of Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarships, which guarantee tuition-free college for families making up to $125,000.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is going to give hope to countless families,” said Clinton three months later at the signing ceremony for the policy, billed as a first-in-the-nation moonshot for higher education.

In other words, Excelsior was a big deal. A handful of states offer tuition-free education for two-year public colleges, and both Sanders and Clinton offered “free” or “debt-free college” proposals during the presidential primary battle. But New York appeared to be fulfilling a key progressive policy goal by extending the promise to most families sending kids to four-year schools. It was announced with all the triumphalism the famously hard-driving governor could muster.

“[In] this state and this nation we say the dream lives … that you can open your arms and you can embrace people from all over the globe and you can say we welcome you to come to New York,” he declared at the signing event.

Then came the reviews. College affordability experts welcomed the new funding but criticized its “free college” branding as false advertising — since the scholarships revert to loans if you leave the state too soon after graduating. Other advocates for youth and families worried about the many students who haven’t been able to qualify or maintain eligibility due to course load and other requirements. Foster youth, for example, often experience housing instability that makes it hard to meet the program’s on-time graduation requirements, while undocumented students remain ineligible for the program and all other state aid.

Dean Potter of Brooklyn is a member of both groups.

Potter’s mother illegally immigrated to New York from Jamaica when he was 3. The 18-year-old always wanted to study to be a doctor, but he remained undocumented, and likely ineligible for the Excelsior Scholarship or federal grants and loans. Worse, a judge placed Potter in foster care during a rough stretch a few years ago, leaving him without the kind of family support that many teens rely on to navigate college admissions. (We’ve changed Potter’s name due to his undocumented status.)

“When I was graduating high school, everyone was talking about financial aid, but I couldn’t get any — I couldn’t work [without a green card or visa] or do anything that my friends could do,” said Potter, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. “It was so frustrating.”

Potter’s foster care caseworker encouraged him to apply anyway — he had strong grades — and he got accepted by Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. The school soon confirmed that he couldn’t get any government aid without a Social Security card. It looked like the roughly $3,300 in tuition and fees might end his college career before it started.

“What could I do, honestly? I had no plan,” recalls Potter.

Potter sent a last-ditch application to a novel new support program: The In-Care Emergency Fund, administered by New Yorkers for Children (NYFC), a 22-year-old nonprofit that seeks to address unmet needs of older youth who either are or were recently in the care of the city’s foster care agency, the Administration for Children’s Services.

Announced last month, the emergency fund is designed to provide a safety net to those foster youth during college, undocumented or not. A medical emergency, an unexpectedly high heating bill, loss of a job right before tuition is due — the fund is there to quickly and flexibly solve short-term crises of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with far fewer restrictions than a traditional financial aid package.

For foster youth experiencing high rates of poverty and trauma in early adulthood, sticking to Excelsior’s timelines and credit requirements isn’t easy, advocates say.

“We get so many calls from college students in foster care telling us that there is nowhere for them to go if they run out of money,” said Saroya Friedman-Gonzalez, the executive director of NYFC. “If they don’t pay a balance or withdrawal funds in time, or some paycheck takes longer than expected, they might not have resources to pay tuition in that emergency. Then they take a semester or two off, and might not return to school.”

She declined to reveal the anonymous funder behind the new emergency fund. NYFC has given out nearly $20,000 since soft-launching in August, and expects to give out $100,000 to dozens of current and former foster youth each year.

“It became very clear to us that there was a real need among youth in foster care where there is no government support to handle these types of emergency issues, which don’t fall into the rules financial aid applies,” she added, noting the surprising number of undocumented youth in New York City’s foster care system, all ineligible for the state’s relatively generous supports for foster youth.

The so-called DREAM Act currently pending in the New York state senate would open up Excelsior and all other state aid programs to undocumented youth like Potter. With Democrats winning the state senate in the midterm elections last week, advocates are hopeful about the proposal reaching the governor’s desk.

“Governor Cuomo has supported the Dream Act for years and his support has been unwavering. His proposal for New York’s 2019 budget is several months away and his full agenda will be outlined then,” said Don Kaplan, spokesman for Governor Cuomo, on whether the Governor plans to pursue or support the DREAM Act again in next year’s legislative session. The Governor’s office had no comment on whether it would revisit the credit requirements or time restrictions for all students attached to the Excelsior scholarship.

Out of options, Dean Potter submitted the eight-page application to NYFC, which Friedman-Gonzalez says can be reviewed and approved within 48 hours by her three-person review team.

Said Potter: “Next thing, I got an e-mail. They’d already paid my late tuition. Honestly, if I could pick a memory in my life, it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had. I’ve never felt that kind of relief.”

Emergency Aid to the Rescue

Emergency aid has quietly performed heroic work for what’s thought to be a growing population of financially insecure college students. There are now hundreds of such programs at schools nationwide, offering emergency loans, vouchers for campus stores, free food or grants, according to a 2016 survey by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

The grants can be as small as $50. Some schools’ programs are funded by national organizations like Dreamkeepers, established by the Lumina Foundation, while others are funded out of school budgets. Sometimes the programs focus on filling last-minute tuition funding gaps, as in Dean Potter’s case, other times they provide or pay for other living expenses that financial aid packages almost never cover, like job interview clothes, transportation or food.

Tenesher Young applied for New Yorkers for Children’s other emergency grant program, the Charles Evans Emergency Education Fund, available since 2012 to college students who have recently aged out of foster care.

“It really helped me sustain. I would definitely have chosen alternatives to college without it, and don’t think I would have successfully finished in four years,” said the John Jay College for Criminal Justice graduate. She used the money for off-campus job interview clothes.

Emergency aid is a relatively new field of inquiry for higher education researchers, as well, who are still figuring out the best way to design programs to increase graduation rates and reduce student misery.

“The data suggest that emergency aid programs are popular, and program administrators believe that they effectively help students, yet they face many challenges,” including around marketing efforts or program evaluation, according to a 2015 study of over 100 such programs co-authored by Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, and Karole Dacholet, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

Goldrick-Rab has been studying food insecurity on campus for over a decade. Her landmark finding that at least half of all college students face food insecurity partly prompted Governor Cuomo to propose this past August that every public college in New York open a free campus food pantry. Former foster youth face a significantly increased risk of food insecurity in college, in addition to facing a much higher risk of failing to graduate.

Dean Potter has opted to major in computer science, and says he is enjoying school. Tenesher Young now works as a program specialist at the nonprofit iFoster. In the Excelsior program’s first year, meanwhile, applications to the state and city public colleges have ticked up around 10 percent each.

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 40 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change