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Over 22,000 take advantage of free state tuition

One out of every five students receiving an Excelsior Scholarship — New York's new free tuition program — attends a public college or university in Western New York.

The University at Buffalo, the state's largest public university, enrolled 1,576 Excelsior recipients in the program's first year, the highest number in the state. The University at Albany and Binghamton University, respectively, followed with 1,044 and 940 scholarships. In all, the state awarded 22,044 of the so-called free tuition scholarships to undergraduate students at public colleges statewide. More than 4,300 of the awards went to students at Western New York campuses.

Western New York colleges and universities took in 20 percent of the Excelsior scholarships while accounting for just under 11 percent of the state's public college students.

The state launched the program last spring to give more undergraduate students a chance to earn a degree without having to pay tuition at State University of New York, City University of New York and community college campuses. Students from families earning less than $100,000 were eligible this year, as long as they're enrolled full time, maintain a minimum grade-point average and graduate on time. The income threshold moves to $110,000 in 2018 and to $125,000 in 2019.

Excelsior recipients also must live and work in New York State after graduation for the same number of years they received the scholarship – or the award converts to a loan.

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Under those stipulations, fewer than half of the 96,000 students who applied for the Excelsior awards were eligible, according to state officials. The rejection rate was similar to the rate for applicants to the state's Tuition Assistance Program, otherwise known as TAP.

The Higher Education Services Corp., a state agency that administers college financial aid, denied 51,000 applications, mainly because of family incomes being too high or students not being on pace to graduate within four years.

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Sabria Hamilton, a junior at UB, is among the unlucky ones.

"I fell short of the 30 credit thing by like two credits," said Hamilton of Westchester County. "I met every other requirement."

The state requires that a student complete 30 credit-hours per year to be eligible. Hamilton said she took a "gap year" in her studies to do a stint with AmeriCorps, the federal program that matches volunteers to service projects throughout the country. The year away from her studies threw off her eligibility for Excelsior, she said.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said a student's time away from the classroom for AmeriCorps service would not make the student ineligible for an Excelsior award. The program has a "stepping out" provision that allows students to put their educations on hold without losing eligibility for a scholarship, said Abbey Fashouer, the spokeswoman. Those provisions include AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, military service, health concerns and family emergencies, she said.

Lindsey Goldstein, a sophomore at UB, isn't getting any Excelsior Scholarship money, either, even though she said she was told by university financial aid officers that she had qualified.

That's because Goldstein already was getting other financial aid, including a UB academic scholarship, that amounted to the maximum Excelsior award of $5,500 per year. The speech pathology major didn't get any extra aid through Excelsior for books, room and board or other expenses. She estimates she's taking out $15,ooo per year in student loans to pay those costs.

"I was hoping that it would turn out to make this year a little cheaper, but I would say this year is costing as much as last year," she said. "I will be very in debt. I probably have 15 grand a year, and I also have to go to grad school."

In addition to the 22,044 Excelsior recipients, about 23,000 students were eligible to receive Excelsior, but already had their full tuitions covered by TAP, federal Pell grants or other scholarships, such as Say Yes. Excelsior was set up as a "last dollar in" program and pays only the remainder of tuition not covered by other financial aid programs.

More than half of the Excelsior recipients statewide began their studies as first-time freshmen in August. Fifty-five percent were enrolled in the 29 state-operated campuses, while the rest were split between community colleges and City University of New York campuses.

In Western New York, Erie Community College, which enrolls more students than any other college in the area aside from UB, had 299 Excelsior awardees. SUNY Fredonia had the second-largest number of Excelsior recipients behind UB, with 553 free tuition scholarship winners. SUNY Geneseo and SUNY Buffalo State College were next with 517 and 487 recipients.

"It's not too far off from what we thought might happen," said Katherine S. Conway-Turner, president of Buffalo State.

Buffalo State recorded a slightly higher number of Excelsior recipients than the numbers provided to The News by HESC, which was still actively compiling data and examining 6,000 applications.

More than 300 Buffalo State students received the maximum Excelsior award, $5,500, and the average award was $1,800, said Conway-Turner.

"That's certainly a good contribution toward their tuition," she said.

But at least as important as the actual dollars was the conversation started by the Excelsior program on college affordability, she added.

State officials said the Excelsior program will cost $87 million in the current state budget. The program was pushed by Cuomo over the objections of many private higher education leaders, who said the scholarships don't target the neediest students and come with too many strings attached. Legislators approved the program in budget negotiations in April.

State officials said the numbers suggest the program attracted students who otherwise might not have applied to attend college because they thought they could not afford it.

"The brand awareness of the program brought a lot of new students into the fold," said Fashouer, the Cuomo spokeswoman.

State officials and higher education experts anticipate a greater number of applicants for Excelsior awards in the 2018-19 academic year, when the scholarship application process will fall in line with the regular admissions and financial aid cycles of colleges and universities.

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