Moises Urena strolled through the quad at the University at Albany last July like he owned the place, sweatpants hitched up showing off his red high-top Nikes, blue backpack hanging low.
He was surrounded by fellow incoming college freshmen from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem on this bright summer afternoon at a special orientation for low-income students. Like Moises, they had resisted being sucked into gangs, drugs and violence by imagining themselves here.
After just two weeks, it already felt like home. But he hadn’t met the kids who would come later, the more affluent students who are more likely to have their own cars. Even among this group of low-income strivers, Moises realized he was different. This campus felt like home because, for several years, he didn’t have a home. Having a bed that no one resents him sleeping in is not something he takes for granted. There were a few others like him. Because they didn’t know they should bring a pillow to campus and can’t afford to buy one, they used a rolled-up sweatshirt. They stayed at the library working until closing time because they don’t have laptops. They didn’t go out on the weekend. Cab fare and dinner out isn’t in their budget.
Moises had his own laptop, bought for him by the nonprofit that helped him apply to college, but he would also be at the library until they kicked him out most nights. He is determined to graduate, and he knows how hard it’s going to be. He has watched his mother, Lina Beltre, fight for years to get a bachelor’s degree. She’s worried that he’ll end up like her: in debt, fighting homelessness, and always wondering what it will take to get those last few credits that she’s sure will launch her out of poverty, into a decent job and, eventually — once she pays off those student loans — into the middle class. Moises’s college loans add up to $7,000 annually. That’s nearly half his mother’s yearly income of less than $16,000.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to make college tuition-free at state schools in New York for students whose families earn less than $125,000. If approved by the Legislature, his Excelsior Scholarship plan would go further than any other state initiative to make college more affordable.
But some higher education experts say Cuomo’s proposal misses the point. His plan, they argue, would mostly help middle-income students who are already likely to attend and then graduate from college, not those least likely to go and most in danger of dropping out. By their reckoning, the plan won’t help New York boost its 65 percent college graduation rate.
Students like Moises, for example, wouldn’t benefit from Cuomo’s proposal. The plan would only kick in after other grants were exhausted. Moises’ tuition is already covered by federal and state aid. His loans are for room and board, which at the University at Albany are twice as much as tuition, nearly $13,000 a year.
“We can’t leave behind families who need more assistance to close that financial gap,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust–New York, a nonprofit advocacy group that published a report about Cuomo’s proposal.
Rosenblum thinks Cuomo’s blueprint should include part-time students, and argues the value of the state’s existing Tuition Assistance Program grants should be increased and programs for needy students should get more funding. Others have argued that the new scholarship should also cover aid for room and board.
Cuomo’s plan requires students to go full time, thus making them more likely to graduate. New York’s state financial aid program for low-income students is already one of the most generous in the nation, officials say.
“What we had in mind was not to leave behind all the students we’re already caring for financially, but to add more,” said SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. “I look at it as expanding opportunity, not exchanging opportunity.”
Cuomo spokesman Frank Sobrino said the state currently spends $1 billion on grants for low-income students. The Excelsior Scholarship program will “ensure that low-income students are maximizing every dollar available to them and bring more students into the fold,” he said in a statement.
Moises, 19, is dreaming big. His first step will be to start a nonprofit in the Bronx to mentor young people. Next, he’ll run for local political office, on the path to announcing a run for the White House, maybe in 2039.
But halfway into Albany’s five-week summer orientation, meant to ease kids into the college experience, school was already harder than he expected. “It’s a whole new world,” he said. “I thought I had it, but it smacked me in the face.”
Moises was in middle school when his mother became homeless. He began skipping school. When he started high school, he couldn’t imagine himself going to college. A weekend trip to Amherst College in Massachusetts the summer before his senior year changed that.College Summit, a national nonprofit, tries to harness the “power of peer pressure” for good, training influential students to essentially become guidance counselors for themselves and their friends. The Amherst weekend was the entry point for recruits: four days at a college, sleeping in dorms, learning about financial aid and application paperwork, and writing a personal essay.
Despite his academic stumbles, Moises was an ideal College Summit student. He was popular, with a big crinkly smile, an earnest personality and natural charisma that drew in both his peers and teachers. Moises had signed up for the weekend because it would be a break from family stress. He came back evangelizing for college.“My whole life changed after that,” he said.
He worked to bring up his GPA and began leaving an hour early in the morning so he could stop to pick up a friend who was always late. He became student government president and started a mentoring club, taking several underclassmen under his wing. UAlbany, his top choice, accepted him through the Educational Opportunity Program, a 50-year-old state program for low-income students that lowers test score admission requirements and provides a host of supports, including money for textbooks and fees and an intense summer boot camp for incoming freshmen.When he boarded a bus to Albany with a gift bag of bedding, toiletries and slippers from his high school and the laptop he won from College Summit, his teachers knew he’d do well.“He has empathy, he has that grit. He’s a survivor,” said Watfa Shama, his high school principal.
But by midsummer, some of the sheen was gone. The EOP summer program enforced strict rules. Moises worried about his mother and sister, and whether he could hack it when “real” college started in the fall.“It’s amazing, and it breaks you,” Moises said of the orientation. “I never thought I’d be in a library for two hours every day.”
That’s why it works, said Maritza Martinez, the director of UAlbany’s EOP program. For the SUNY system, the six-year graduation rate for students in EOP is 67.7 percent, according to a SUNY spokesperson, compared to 65.7 percent for all students.
“We go strong on getting them ready for what awaits them,” Martinez said.
Moises misses home. “Sometimes I feel selfish or bad that I could have stayed and helped my mom,” he said. But now he is in a groove. The tiny cohort of EOP students has become a surrogate family. If a class becomes difficult, his training has taught him what to do: Call the professor for help, visit the tutoring center and crack the books. A work study job tutoring high school students is perfect for him. But he often goes hungry from Friday night until his shift ends at 1 p.m. Saturday because the dining hall doesn’t open until after he leaves for work on Saturday mornings. For several weeks in the fall, his bank account held 52 cents.
The homey feeling when he first arrived on campus has shifted into something more complex. “I feel like I belong here, but it also feels like I don’t have who I need up here. I don’t have people who struggled like me,” he said.
Moises, now 19, made the Dean’s List last fall. This spring, he has signed up for seven classes, including one preparing him to be a Residential Advisor next fall, a post that would cover room and board. He also works a $10.75-an-hour job at Dunkin’ Donuts on the 3 to 9 a.m. shift, four days a week.One morning two weeks ago, Moises was exhausted and fighting a cold, but optimistic. He had turned down an extra Dunkin’ Donuts shift so he could present his plan to open a nonprofit mentoring group to 1 Million Cups, a group of entrepreneurs who volunteer to help startups. Then he headed to the Capitol to join classmates for a day of lobbying legislators for increased funds for the EOP.
SUNY receives 15,000 qualified applications each year for the 2,900 available slots in the program, a spokesperson said. Funding has fluctuated: Last year, the EOP program received $32 million; this year, Cuomo proposed decreasing it to $26.8 million.
State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who was an EOP counselor at Stony Brook University, proposed funding the program at $37.5 million this year. The Assembly’s one-house budget resolution, which passes on Wednesday, also calls for expanding TAP and modifies the Excelsior Scholarship to allow students to apply some of their federal aid to non-tuition expenses like room and board, meaning more students would be able to take advantage of the governor’s free tuition plan.
Administration officials said Cuomo’s overall proposed funding for a host of programs targeting needy college students, including EOP, has increased by 31 percent since 2012, to $177.4 million in this year’s executive budget plan.
Moises doesn’t think college should be free for anyone — he believes students value their education more if they have skin in the game. But he supports the idea of making college more affordable for more people.
But he worries that help for the middle could come at the expense of students like him and his mom. “I get it. You’re trying to help the middle class, not the lower class,” Moises said of Cuomo’s proposal. “But it’s confusing.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.