Miscommunication: The Issue with the Excelsior Scholarship
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Joshwald Martinez, a soft-spoken junior, who is a theater major at Hunter College, was just half a credit short of qualifying for the Excelsior Scholarship at the start of the fall semester. He had applied after seeing advertisements describing a debt free college experience for CUNY students in his income bracket.
Martinez asked the bursar if he could make up the half-credit by taking a summer class and received conflicting information. Unsure of whether or not it would help him, and not wanting to pay extra money for a class that might not aid his application, Martinez decided to revert to his District Subsidized Federal Stanford loans as the only guaranteed way he had to pay for tuition.
Martinez’s voice was steady, and his words measured, as he recounted the experience, giving the impression that his anger had been processed and accepted, unlike his application.
So far, the Excelsior Scholarship has been billed as something that will help working class families, but in actuality many applicants who need it, like Martinez, are having a difficult time obtaining it. Poor communication between students and bureaucracy can derail applicants who might be eligible for a scholarship.
Martinez says it was hard to speak with the financial aid office because of how impersonal it is.
“I don’t know anybody in the office and it just feels like a lot to reach out to someone who doesn’t care about you on an individual level,” says Martinez.
Hunter College has 16,550 undergraduate students. According to a presentation to the Hunter Senate, 468 Hunter students received the scholarship in 2017 (just under 3 percent). An additional 154 were eligible, but their tuition balance was already covered by other grants. It is possible, however, that poor communication is playing a role in preventing more students, like Martinez, from taking advantage of the opportunity.
The Hunter financial aid office declined comment for this article. The New York State Higher Education Services Corporation was also unavailable for comment, because the internal transfer to their public relations department was misdirected to adoption services.
Even those who do receive money from Excelsior complain of an inability to communicate with their schools and learn what they need to do to apply.
Sarah Elnewishy, a junior media major at Hunter College and recipient of the scholarship, almost didn’t receive any money when she was told that she was three credits short of qualifying for the scholarship, like Martinez.
Excelsior requires students to be enrolled for at least 15 credits per semester in order to take advantage of the offer. This means Elnewishy needed to complete 60 credits by the start of her junior year, but after taking 12 one semester, she was left with only 57.
Hunter requires students to take at least 12 credits in order to be considered full-time, three less than the Excelsior requirements.
Elnewishy’s first thought was the same as Martinez’s: enroll in a summer class, make up the credits, and reapply, and like Martinez she wanted to make sure the summer credits would count towards her total. After calling both the state education office and Hunter, and receiving conflicting information, Elnewishy decided to take a chance and enroll in a summer class. After completing the class, she resubmitted her application and got approved, unlike Martinez.
Elnewishy was able to get her scholarship because she could afford the extra tuition, and take the chance that a summer class would be helpful.
“I feel as though the administration is very confused about what the Excelsior Scholarship is, specifically financial aid,” says Elnwishy. “When I ask financial aid about it, the few times I have, they direct me to TAP, and then when I ask TAP about it they directed me to the financial aid office at Hunter and it’s just a cycle.”
Students like Elnewishy and Martinez say they have trouble cutting through red tape and bureaucracy, though Martinez believes the scholarship credit requirements are also too difficult. He thinks that the burden of taking an overloaded class schedule may be too much for some students with other responsibilities.
“I think that’s the structural problem, where it cuts off the funding for people from working class families who have to take other jobs to support their families and also their own education,” says Martinez.
In the end, Elnewishy says she has been happy with her scholarship, even though she struggled to get it, but some other recipients feel misled.
Jessica Martinez (no relation to Joshwald) is a disabled, 41-year-old, single mother of a student with Excelsior. She found out the hard way that the scholarship does not work with other forms of financial aid.
Excelsior is a tuition only scholarship, meaning it does not cover things like dorms, food, or the $150 calculator Martinez’s son needs for his statistics class.
PELL, which Martinez’s son also receives, is a more encompassing grant, but was only counted towards tuition. This means her son ended up receiving $225 per semester from Excelsior and $3,000 of debt from one year at college.
The majority of students who receive funding from PELL come from families with incomes under $20,000, and those who receive TAP—a grant that gives up to $5,165 dollars towards tuition—come from families that make under $80,000 per year.
Excelsior currently gives money to students who come from working class families that make under $110,000 per year (though that number will increase to $125,000 soon). The median income for families who have students that attend Hunter is $57,000.
If students are able to fill all the requirements, they can receive aid from one or more of these programs. Though, even if students do get money from all three, they may still end up with loans, as Martinez discovered when she calculated that her son’s debt would be $24,000 to $25,000 by the time he graduates.
“It is what it is,” Martinez says about Excelsior, in the tone of somebody who has no battles left to fight.
It is easy to get the impression from student complaints that the Excelsior Scholarship is a failure, but supporters of the scholarship believe in its success.
Joe Fantozzi is the deputy director of undergraduate admissions and recruitment at Hunter College. It is his job to make students aware of Excelsior, and help them apply. According to him, all is well.
“The feedback has been great so far,” says Fantozzi. “Everyone that has gone through the application process and received funding obviously is very happy.”
He says there is “three-pronged communication” between the Higher Education Services Corporation, City University offices, and individual campuses. This involves regular meetings to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
“Essentially all we’re doing is passing along the guidelines from New York State. For Excelsior, they’re fairly straight forward. It’s actually, in my opinion, less complex than something like TAP or a Pell Grant,” says Fantozzi.
There may be some unfortunate cases, like Joshwald Martinez, but Fantozzi believes that, for the most part, communication is efficient.
As for Martinez, he does not regret applying. “I guess I would have regretted it if I hadn’t done it, but I was upset,” he says with a sigh.
Martinez will be eligible to apply for Excelsior next year if he decides, and he says he might, since he has nothing to lose by doing so. After missing out on the opportunity for free tuition in his junior year, however, Martinez will only have a shot at getting the scholarship for the final leg of his college journey. For now, his student loans will have to suffice.
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