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Potential ‘Excelsior’ reduction causes fear for college officials

File Photo Jamestown Community College officials have not heard how the Excelsior Scholarship will be affected with the state’s fiscal future remaining unclear.

With New York state’s fiscal future remaining unclear — especially in the education realm — a program aimed to help college become more affordable may be among the casualties.

The Excelsior Scholarship Program, which began in 2017, allows students whose families earn below a set annual income to attend state colleges and universities tuition-free. The application for students typically opens in the spring but was delayed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not open until the end of July.

“The majority of questions we’ve been fielding were about when the application would go live,” said Cory Bezok, executive director of enrollment services at the State University of New York at Fredonia. “It was particularly delayed this year with everything, so financially we’ve been getting a lot of questions and it only went live a few weeks ago That’s what we’ve been getting most of the questions on.”

He added, “This is a strange year to begin with, this just adds to it. We’re hoping to get students qualified quickly.”

Upon logging on to access their application, however, students began noticing a prompt, noting that the pandemic “has drastically reduced state revenues and the processing of new applications ins pending on Federal assistance, which has been delayed since April. Excelsior Scholarship awards may have to be reduced and/or prioritized for current recipients as provided for under the program.”

Kirk Young, vice president of student affairs at Jamestown Community College, said college officials had not heard how the Excelsior Scholarship would be affected.

“As far as we’re concerned, we have not received any word that the Excelsior Scholarship is being affected,” he said. “We’ve been told that every form of funding could be affected by this. As far as anything specific, we have not heard, but we definitely are moving forward to be able to provide whatever opportunities of support that we can for students.”

A reduction in funding could affect approximately 23% of students at SUNY Fredonia, Bezok said noting that the program has gone “really well” at the college.

Bezok said his office at SUNY Fredonia has fielded more questions

“We don’t know what that number will be for this year, but for our students, we’re among the highest percentage of Excelsior recipients of any college within SUNY or (City University of New York),” he said. “The program has worked particularly well for our students. It’s really geared toward supporting students in the middle-income range.”

While JCC doesn’t have as many students utilizing the program, Young still said it has had an impact.

“I don’t know if I would classify it as a big impact,” he said. “Students at a community college have a lot of resources available to helps students already. Students were already receiving some sort of assistance whether it’s financial aid, scholarships. While it has helped some, the impact I would say wouldn’t be big.”

At Fredonia, however, Bezok also said the number of students receiving the scholarship has increased year-to-year due to the set income level, which began at $100,000, increased to $110,000 and now currently is $125,000. The program has also allowed the college to redirect scholarship funds.

“The other thing we did was we were able to move a majority of our scholarships away from reducing Excelsior so that our students could receive merit-based awards that would go toward their housing, food and fees not directed toward their tuition, where Excelsior is geared to reducing just tuition,” he said, emphasizing how beneficial it has been.

“With nearly a quarter of our students receiving aid through this program has been very beneficial not just in reducing their expenditures but also in helping them,” he said. “There are credit requirements that they have to do every year so that helps keep our students on track to really put the four-year degree back into the college with the focus being getting in and getting out in the as little amount of time and this program has really helped our students focus on that in terms of getting the award and grant.”

Still, as a reduction looms, both are concerned about how it will ultimately affect students.

“Overall, it’s not just Excelsior, we’re concerned about cost and affordability for all of our students,” Bezok said. “Any opportunity that we have through a state or federal program through grant-based aid, more money that they don’t have to pay back, reduces student loan expenditures. Ultimately, we want students to get their education for as little money out of their pocket as possible to be able to graduate, get employed and not be in massive amounts of student debt. That’s what public education is all about, really focusing on that.”

“Any form of financial aid for a student is a benefit,” Young said. “Where this comes in, it’s helping students that previously wouldn’t have qualified for it. We’re grateful to see any amount fo support we can for sure.”

Added Bezok, “If we’re able to have Excelsior, it really helps reduce that burden to the students and make college more affordable for those families. We’re hopeful that the funding is put in place and that we’re able to help reduce that burden for those families.”

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