Test case

New York’s free-college program comes with a big catch: Students who fall off track risk losing their scholarships

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address in 2017.

With thousands of college students about to finish their first semester under New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, advocates, critics and researchers will be looking closely at one crucial question: How did they do?

The new scholarship — which provides free college tuition at state public schools to students whose families make less than $100,000 a year — is the first program in the nation in which a state offers free tuition at four-year colleges. But the program has also been criticized for its many restrictions, including strict credit requirements and an obligation to live and work in the state after graduation.

One early sign of the program’s effectiveness will be whether students can keep up with their classwork. The scholarship banks on the idea that students will not fall behind over the course of a year. The penalty for failing to complete the required credits by year’s end are substantial: Students must pay back a semester’s tuition and forfeit future funds.

Tracking the number of scholarship students who fail to complete courses in this first semester of the program will provide one indication of how many students may struggle to meet the requirements, experts said.

In the next two to three years, once there’s a lot of numerical data, we’re all going to have a much better sense of how this program is faring and what specific issues may arise that need to be ironed out,” said Arthur Ramsay, spokesman for the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents students throughout the State University of New York.

The state intends to expand the income eligibility for the program by 2019 to include families who make $125,000 or less a year.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the scholarship last spring, critics jumped on the requirement that students complete 30 credits a year — the average course load required to graduate on-time — since many students struggle to finish in two or four years. But Cuomo argued that it will encourage more students to graduate faster, and that dragging out college makes it less likely students will ever complete a degree.

Eric Neutuch, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern who is studying financial aid, said that he could potentially see the credit requirement having both positive and negative effects. It is possible more students will sign up for extra credits in order to keep their scholarship, but losing a scholarship may throw off students who otherwise would have graduated, he said.

“There is potential that students will lose Excelsior, not regain it, owe money back to their college and throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m done with college,’” Neutuch said. More scrutiny is necessary to figure out what the result will be, he said.

The scholarship’s rules leave some wiggle room, but not a lot. If students fall behind, they can attempt to make up a class the next semester. Students are also allowed to count summer classes, though they are only eligible for the scholarship during the school year. Some students may also be granted hardship waivers for the death of a family member, health problems, or parental leave.

But the credit requirement may be particularly onerous for students not quite ready for college-level work. They must take a full course-load in addition to any remedial classes, which may be required for students in associate’s degree programs. Only 46 percent of New York City students meet the benchmark to avoid remedial classes at the City University of New York.

If history is any indication, college students from New York City will struggle with this set of rules. According to a CUNY report, only about 32 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees completed 30 credits in 2014. (CUNY is now using a separate metric focused on freshman to track credit accumulation.) In associate degree programs, less than 10 percent of entering freshman in 2015 finished 30 credits in their first year.

State officials argue part of the scholarship’s goal is to improve that metric.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is designed to help as many students as possible attend college tuition-free while boosting on-time completion and reducing student debt,” said Elizabeth Bibi, a spokesperson from the governor’s office. “Most importantly, in its first year alone, the scholarship is already helping thousands of New Yorkers attend college with zero tuition-costs—something to be celebrated.”

But for many students, taking 30 credits each year is simply not possible, said Stephanie Fiorelli, the postsecondary success manager at Urban Assembly, which supports 21 small public schools in New York City. She said many students who graduated from Urban Assembly schools are working between 15 and 20 hours a week on top of attending school. They have family obligations, run into problems paying for transportation, and struggle with a myriad of obstacles out of their control.

“These kids want to be in school full-time.” she said. “It’s not feasible at all.”

Other complications could play into students’ ability to reach the 30-credit requirement. Natan Nassir, a sophomore at Binghamton University, started his year with the state’s Excelsior scholarship, but ran into trouble when he decided to switch majors.

For his new major, he was encouraged, but not technically required, to take a computer science course. However, since he does not need that class in order to graduate, it does not count towards his 30 required credits, he said. (State officials said that all credits must count towards a student graduating and getting a degree.)

He will be one class shy of what he needs (even though he is taking a full course load) and he plans to attend summer school to make up the extra class.

“I was very surprised, honestly, when she told me about this requirement,” Nassir said, “I had no idea that it existed. I kind of thought, ‘Well now what?’”

beyond high school

Here’s where you can find new workforce training classes in Memphis

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

After months of planning to overhaul the district’s job certification programs, Shelby County Schools is sharing which schools will have each program if approved in the district’s budget.

Tennessee’s largest district narrowed its focus from 16 to seven mostly high-paying career fields and plans to phase out others.

  • Advance manufacturing
  • Architecture
  • Health science
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Marketing/distribution
  • Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • Transportation

Students would not have to test into any of the programs. Altogether, the district have about 180 courses to attract more students to its programs. Only half of eligible seniors last year completed their job certification. Classes in areas such as cosmetology, culinary arts, and car repair will continue, but not as many.

Sixty-five programs will be phased out in 24 schools. About 35 teachers will continue teaching the targeted courses until current students complete certifications in the programs. The district will provide transportation for those students if the program is moved to another school.

Roughly 15 teachers will given the opportunity to train in one of the new focus areas next year, according to Joris Ray, an assistant superintendent. The district will pay for another 45 teachers to take an IT certification exam and ongoing training. The remaining teachers, about 140, will continue in their current classrooms. Shelby County Schools plans to hire more teachers in relevant fields, but officials did not provide specific numbers Wednesday.

Ray said the district would hold a meeting with career and technical education teachers Thursday afternoon to explain how the changes affect them.

“We want see everybody placed. We don’t want to see anybody without a position. That’s our goal,” Ray said Wednesday.

The $8 million revamp to its career and technical education program is part of the proposed budget for 2018-19 school year that board members are expected to pass later this month.

Workforce training classes are getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future.

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

School board members Wednesday were worried that school counselors, let alone parents and students, wouldn’t have all the information they needed to successfully navigate the new programs.

“It has to be someone who understands careers… so at the end you cross the stage with a certification,” said Miska Clay Bibbs.

You can see below which schools will house which certification programs. (Be sure to zoom in!):

study says...

One big upside of career and tech programs? They push more kids to graduate

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at Aviation High School in Queens.

As a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, Shaun Dougherty noticed that students in career-focused programs seemed much more engaged than his other students.

Now a researcher, Dougherty set out to see whether data backed up his experience. Could the programs not just prepare students for the workforce, but keep students from dropping out of school?

To find out, Dougherty studied Massachusetts’ 36 vocational and technical high schools, where students alternate between academic coursework and full-time work in areas like auto repair, graphic design, and machine technology. What he found was striking: At those schools, students were substantially more likely to graduate high school than similar peers at typical high schools.

“The intention for CTE is to help with skill development for long-term career and earnings potential,” said Dougherty, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut. “The fact that it’s having this payoff on high school graduation is a positive, but perhaps unintended, consequence.”

Career and technical programs can come with downsides, too — in particular, offering training in skills that may eventually become obsolete or devalued. But the new research bolsters the academic case for the programs, a rare education initiative that carries bipartisan imprimatur.

In the study, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, Dougherty finds that the career and tech high school students came out far ahead of similar students on a number of metrics.

In addition to being 21 percentage points more likely to graduate high school, students from low-income families scored slightly higher on standardized tests. Graduation rates were also higher for higher-income students, though they did not see any test-score gains.

Those are encouraging results. Still, it’s possible that the students who chose to attend the vocational high schools were more motivated than their peers to begin with, skewing the results.

Dougherty addresses this by narrowing his lens to just three schools and using a different approach to nail down cause and effect. Using school admissions data, he compares students who just missed the cut-off to earn entry to students who just barely earned a spot — the idea being that the two groups of students are essentially identical.

Again, the results show that the career and technical schools notably increase the chances of graduating high school for both higher- and low-income students: by 7 to 10 percentage points and possibly more. In this case, there was no clear effect on test scores.

The approaches in tandem suggest Massachusetts’ career-focused high schools really do boost graduation rates.

That’s consistent with recent studies on career and tech programs in a variety of settings. Analyses of data from Philadelphia and Wake County, North Carolina found that students who randomly won a chance to attend a career-focused high school were more likely to graduate high school and attend college.  

Other research by Dougherty has found that students in Arkansas who took several career-focused courses in one focus area are more likely to graduate than similar students who don’t. And using national data, two other recent studies found that students who took more CTE courses, particularly later in high school, were also more likely to graduate on time, compared to demographically similar students. (Keep in mind, though, that these studies are less able to clearly isolate cause and effect.)

That research generally doesn’t show clear positive effects on math and reading test scores — but the students also don’t find negative effects, which to Dougherty is an encouraging sign.

“One of the classic concerns with vocational and technical education is that by specializing in an area of training you might be trading off general knowledge,” he said. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect their test scores to be higher, but we might worry that they would be lower.”

The reason for the career and technical schools’ particular success is unclear. It could be that CTE programs are particularly effective at boosting non-academic skills like grit — or that students benefit from peers all motivated to participate in the same program.

Dougherty suggests that students may benefit from being able to select a school or program that’s a good fit for them. He also points to the specific regional structure of CTE schools in Massachusetts, where the “learning environment may make learning more relevant and engaging, while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with participating in CTE, and providing better mentorship opportunities.”

Still, Dougherty cautions that the positive finding doesn’t necessarily mean that policymakers should rush to expand the programs. One concern is that growing such offerings could actually train too many students for a small pool of specific jobs. Another is that it’s not clear what makes a high-quality program.

“I’m very skeptical that we know exactly how to scale it well,” Dougherty said.