Michele Gawronski tried the traditional route to a college degree fresh out of Hamburg High School 28 years ago. It didn't work.
She's trying again now. The single mother of two teenage daughters takes night classes while working two jobs to make ends meet.
As a state income taxpayer, Gawronski will help fund recently adopted enhancements to financial aid programs in New York, including the new Excelsior Scholarships that promise free tuition to the state's public colleges and universities. But because she's a part-time student, Gawronski isn't eligible to receive the aid, and she can't afford to quit her jobs and become a full-time student.
Gawronski could use the help. She already has had to take out student loans and still has six courses to complete toward an associate degree from Trocaire College.
“How am I going to pay for loans for school when I can barely keep up myself?” she said.
Restrictions on financial aid for part-time students like Gawronski remain one of the biggest shortcomings in the way financial aid is handled in New York, according to some higher education policy experts.
The free tuition program "is not doing anything for these other students who want to stay in their communities and are committed to staying in their communities because they're already working there," said Tom Hilliard, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future. "There's a real contradiction embedded into the Excelsior program."
Pushing students to graduate
The administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the full-time provision will push students to complete their studies as quickly as possible, limiting loan debt and ensuring graduation, which leads to greater employability and earnings.
Studies show that the longer students extend their studies, the less likely those students are to graduate, said Robert Mujica, the state's budget director. The latest state budget includes $3.1 million for a new part-time scholarship award program, "a recognition that we could do more for part-time students," added Mujica.
But the credit-hour requirement may overlook significant shifts taking place in the makeup of student populations on campuses across the country, especially at community colleges, according to some higher education policy experts. In addition to traditional students who graduate from high school and enroll directly in college with financial support from their parents, many institutions attract a growing number of nontraditional students. They tend to be over the age of 25, often are raising children and usually have full-time jobs.
Bassam M. Deeb, president of Trocaire, described them as students who have "multiple priorities in their lives and want higher education to be one of those priorities, but can't commit to it at the cost of the other priorities."
Trocaire has many nontraditional students. The private, two-year Catholic college in South Buffalo enrolls about 1,500 students in all. Forty percent are single parents who work. More than half attend part time.
"Many of them are not part-time students because they choose to be, but because they can't be anything but part-time students," Deeb said.
Part-time students account for 43 percent of enrollment at the state's 36 community colleges, up from 32 percent in 1980. Nearly a third of those colleges have more students attending part time than full time. At Erie Community College, about a third of students are part time.
And yet, a 2014 Center for an Urban Future study found that less than 1 percent of the nearly 150,000 part-time community college students received grants from New York's Tuition Assistance Program – in large part because of onerous restrictions on part-time aid.
State officials said a goal of the Excelsior Scholarship program is to improve graduation rates, but part-time students often cite an inability to pay for college as one of the primary reasons for dropping out.
The state needs to find better ways to support nontraditional students, said Hilliard.
"Students should attend full time if they can, but the ability of a student to attend full time has to do with factors that the state is not prepared to address," he said.
The state will require students who receive free tuition to live and work in New York after they graduate as a condition of keeping the aid as a grant, instead of a loan. It's one way to help bolster the percentage of New Yorkers with college degrees.
But Hilliard said it "was not honest marketing" by the state. At the same time, there are large numbers of part-time students who contribute to the state's economy and may be able to contribute more with a degree.
Among most generous
New York is is considered among the most generous states in the nation for helping students attend college.
And the state added $3.1 million for a new part-time scholarship program, allowing eligible students to receive up to $1,500 over the course of four consecutive semesters. Mujica said the state heavily subsidizes the cost of attendance at State University of New York colleges and universities, so that tuition already is low, for both full-time and part-time students.
"We do more for that subsidy than 41 other states," he said. "You have to recognize the subsidy of the tuition itself is not insignificant."
Mujica said the state also is implementing an electronic textbook system in an effort to cut down on the costs of books and supplies.
"That helps every student," he said.
State-operated SUNY campuses may even see part-time students switch to full time with the implementation of the Excelsior program, which will cover more of their costs.
"That definitely is the case with a number of our students," said Katherine S. Conway Turner, president of SUNY Buffalo State. Some part-time students already are looking to pick up extra courses in the summer so they will be able to meet the credit threshold.
But Conway Turner also acknowledged that nontraditional students who take only a course or two per semester would not benefit.
"That's not our typical student," she said. "This program is not going to accelerate them so much."
Tried college once
After graduating from Hamburg High School in 1989, Gawronski attended Erie Community College but stopped when she found a full-time job. She has had several decent jobs since, and decided in 2014 to return to college on the advice of her current employer, who has helped with tuition costs.
Gawronski, 45, worried that she wouldn't fit in on a campus full of 18- to 22-year-olds. But at Trocaire, she found plenty of students with similar life experiences.
"I said, 'OK, I'm going to start with one class," said Gawronski. This past semester, she upped it to three courses. "I'm comfortable here."
Gawronski said it was unfortunate she wouldn't receive any state financial aid under the new Excelsior program or enhancements to TAP that will assist private college students. She has no intention of quitting, though.
"I set this goal, and honestly, my kids are watching me," she said. "I want them to see me walk across that stage."
Trocaire also has many students who already have college degrees and are returning to campus for retraining in high demand fields, said Deeb. Those students have exhausted their eligibility for federal and state financial aid.
Deeb said he agrees with Cuomo's push to have more students graduating, but he urged a more "holistic" approach than mandating that students take 30 credits per year.
"It just wasn't inclusive of the entire landscape of higher education," he said. "We're a state that historically has prided itself on providing options for students."