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?’”

Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

PHOTO: SCS
Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

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.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”

Change agent

Education group that started in a Memphis classroom up for national Renewal Award

PHOTO: LITE
Students participate in Let’s Innovate Through Education, a nonprofit organization that develops young entrepreneurs in Memphis. The group is a 2018 recipient of the national Renewal Award.

A Memphis education group started by a former teacher is among 25 nonprofit organizations named as finalists for a national award for helping to renew their communities.

Let’s Innovate Through Education, or LITE, was chosen among 3,000 nominees across the nation to compete for the 2018 Renewal Award. The annual competition, now in its third year, was created by The Atlantic and Allstate to recognize local organizations for their work.

The finalists now go head-to-head for votes to see which five groups will receive prizes of $20,000 each, while five runners-up will get $10,000. The public can vote here through Feb. 21 for the organization that they believe is creating the most local change.

LITE was created in 2013 in the classroom of Hardy Farrow, a former teacher at Power Center Academy. The group seeks to close the racial wealth gap by helping young entrepreneurs of color launch businesses through an eight-year training model that equips students with capital, networks, and coaching.

PHOTO: LITE
More than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

“When people from around the nation see us on this list, I hope they take away that age shouldn’t be a deterrent from pursuing entrepreneurship and location shouldn’t be a deterrent,” said Farrow, who now serves as the group’s executive director. “A lot of people don’t view Memphis as a place for new businesses to grow, especially businesses launched by young people. We’re changing that.”

LITE starts with a six-month high school program for students who pitch their ideas and work on projects to improve their communities. In college, they receive competitive internships with local employers such as Choose 901, Regional One Health, and the Memphis Education Fund.

So far, more than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

LITE is the only Tennessee organization up for this year’s Renewal Award, but it’s not the first time for LITE to receive national attention. In 2016, the Memphis group was named one of the 20 ideas that can change the world by Forbes Magazine. And in 2013, Teach For America called it one of the five most innovative ideas in teaching.

“For students in our program who go on to apply for jobs or internships, saying you’re a part of this nationally honored program helps you get in the door,” Farrow said of the latest award. “It gives you confidence in launching a business, to say that you were picked for this program, you finished high school, and no you can go out and do this.”

Jada Newsom, a graduate of Ridgeway High School and sophomore at Middle Tennessee State University, is among those students. She spoke with Chalkbeat last summer about the work experience she was gaining as an intern at Imagine U, a local entrepreneurship program where she and other interns were developing a system to help college students manage their money better.

“I like how working as a team gives me a different perspective,” Newsom said. “ We can combine our ideas to make something bigger.”

Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.