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Robert Ortt
stated on July 20, 2020 in a news release:
Says Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers are “granting free tuition to illegal immigrants while closing Excelsior Scholarship applications to citizen students.”
true barely-true
New York state Sen. Robert Ortt speaks against legislation granting undocumented Immigrant driver's licenses on June 17, 2019. (AP) New York state Sen. Robert Ortt speaks against legislation granting undocumented Immigrant driver's licenses on June 17, 2019. (AP)

New York state Sen. Robert Ortt speaks against legislation granting undocumented Immigrant driver's licenses on June 17, 2019. (AP)

John Pullano
By John Pullano August 20, 2020

New York Republican leader miscasts Democratic moves on tuition, scholarships

If Your Time is short

• The Excelsior Scholarship program, which provides tuition assistance to New York state colleges and universities, shut down applications temporarily due to coronavirus concerns; it is now open again.

• Contrary to what Ortt said, the closure would have had an equal impact on both U.S. citizens and individuals here illegally. 

• While people who are in the country illegally — as well as other immigrants covered by the state’s DREAM Act — could still seek clearance to apply for tuition assistance during the Excelsior Scholarship’s closure, they could not be awarded financial aid as long as the scholarship’s website was closed.

Did New York state Democrats provide free tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants while shutting down scholarships for American citizens? That’s what Senate Republican Leader Robert G. Ortt charged.

In a July 20 press release from the New York state Senate Republican Conference, Ortt took aim at Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his Democratic allies in the Legislature, saying they’d halted the application period for the New York State Excelsior Scholarship program while the application for the DREAM Act remained open.

Democrats were "granting free tuition to illegal immigrants while closing Excelsior Scholarship applications to citizen students," the release said.

This is partially accurate but draws a misleading contrast between undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens. In this article, we’ll explain what actually happened.

Some background on the Excelsior Scholarship and the DREAM Act

In 2017, Cuomo proposed the Excelsior Scholarship program, which would provide tuition assistance to nearly 30,000 citizens from households earning less than $125,000 a year. The program was passed as part of the 2018 budget.

To receive the assistance, a student must earn a minimum of 30 credits a year at a public New York college or university. After graduating, the recipient must work in New York for four years or else reimburse the tuition aid.

As for the DREAM Act, it provides a pathway to legal status for youth who were brought to the United States as children with parents who entered illegally. A federal DREAM Act was introduced by senators of both parties in 2001 but has languished since then. 

But in 2019, New York passed a statewide law modeled on the federal bill, officially known as the José Peralta New York State Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. It includes provisions that secure the right of immigrants living in the United States illegally to apply for tuition assistance, including through the Excelsior program.

Did Democrats grant "free tuition to illegal immigrants"?

Ortt said in the release that the DREAM Act application period granted "free tuition to illegal immigrants." That’s a bit oversimplified.

Featured Fact-check

In order to receive tuition assistance, someone without legal immigration status must first apply for DREAM Act status, according to the act’s website. Once accepted, the applicant needs to meet criteria for each financial aid program separately. The financial aid programs then calculate potential awards independently.

In other words, free tuition is not guaranteed to every DREAM Act applicant, and any aid is provided by the Higher Education Services Corp., which is New York state’s higher education financial aid agency.

"No financial aid is available through the DREAM Act," said Angela Liotta, director of communications for HESC. "The DREAM Act application only determines if a student is eligible to apply for funding under various New York state financial aid programs. Students meeting DREAM Act eligibility criteria can then apply for HESC-administered grants and scholarships, including the Excelsior Scholarship."

In addition, while the DREAM Act is most closely associated with those without legal immigration status, it also covers individuals with several categories of legal immigration status,

Did Democrats close "Excelsior Scholarship applications to citizen students"?

At the time of Ortt’s statement, the Excelsior Scholarship program was indeed closed due to the coronavirus pandemic — for all students, not just citizens. 

The HESC website said at the time of Ortt’s news release that it would not be accepting Excelsior Scholarship applications until July 24. Then, a week before that date,the agency reopened Excelsior Scholarship applications, and as of mid-August, the program remained open. 

But Ortt drew an inaccurate distinction. The program was not handing money to undocumented immigrants while shutting the door on citizens. Any applicant, whether a U.S. citizen or a someone approved under the DREAM Act, would have been blocked from applying for an Excelsior Scholarship during the time the program was closed. And within weeks, the program was accepting applications again.

Our ruling

Ortt said that Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers are "granting free tuition to illegal immigrants while closing Excelsior Scholarship applications to citizen students."

This is a false distinction. The Excelsior Scholarship application shutdown affected both undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens equally. Individuals covered by the state’s DREAM Act -- could still seek clearance to apply for tuition assistance during the Excelsior Scholarship’s closure, but they could not be awarded financial aid as long as the scholarship’s website was closed.

We rate Ortt’s statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

New York State Senate, NY Senate Republican Conference Slams Democrats, July 20, 2020

American Immigration Council, The Dream Act, DACA, and Other Policies Designed to Protect Dreamers, September 9, 2020

Higher Education Service Corporation, The Senator José Peralta New York State DREAM Act, August 14, 2020

Higher Education Service Corporation, Excelsior Scholarship Program, August 14, 2020

New York Times, Democrats Take Control of New York Senate for First Time in Decade, November 7, 2018

WKBW Buffalo,NYS Excelsior Scholarship Program could be impacted by a loss of state revenue, July 21, 2020

Email interview with Andrew Dugan, communications director for Robert G. Ortt, July 28, 2020

Email interview with Angela Liotta, director of communications for the Higher Education Service Corporation, Aug. 13, 2020

New York Republican leader miscasts Democratic moves on tuition, scholarships

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