After traveling for hours by bus, hundreds of students poured into hallways of the state capitol building in Albany on Thursday to urge their representatives to provide more funding to New York’s public colleges and reform the state’s financial aid program to make it more accessible.
The trip was organized by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and supported by several higher education advocacy organizations and the faculty unions for New York’s public colleges (CUNY and SUNY).
One of the biggest issues on the agenda was support for the New York State Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students in New York to receive financial aid from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).
This year, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the Dream Act in his executive budget, which passed in the Assembly on Thursday and is now headed to the Senate. Many of the students were hopeful that this might be the year that the bill finally becomes law. In 2002, the state government allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at New York’s public colleges.
During a press conference held shortly after the students arrived in Albany, Luba Cortez, a youth organizer for Make the Road New York and an undocumented student at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), said passing the Dream Act would help her complete college.
“My mother brought me here because she wanted me to have opportunities that I was not going to have growing up in Mexico,” she said. “My aspiration is to major in psychology in order to help young people of color like myself. But I’m not going to be able to achieve that if I can’t graduate from college.”
Passing the Dream Act would make New York the fifth state to provide financial aid to undocumented students. Washington State passed a similar bill last week while California, New Mexico and Texas have already passed versions of the Dream Act that allow undocumented residents to receive state financial aid.
However, many students also wanted to expand the access to TAP even further to make it accessible to even more New Yorkers. Currently, TAP is not provided to graduate students, people who are incarcerated or people who have defaulted on their student loans.
More importantly, students would like to change the way TAP is awarded so that more students can attend college part-time and still receive financial aid. There are currently almost 40,000 part-time students enrolled in CUNY community colleges, but only 91 of them receive money for college from TAP.
“These are students who work full-time and who qualify for TAP because they never have the time to take on a full course load,” said City Tech student Lucas Almonte, who is also the Vice Chair of Legislative Affairs for CUNY’s University Student Senate. “So we’re advocating to remove the requirement that students must go to school full-time for the first two semesters to receive TAP.”
Many students were also concerned about the rising cost of tuition at New York’s public colleges. Both SUNY and CUNY are entering the last year of a $1,500 tuition increase that took place over five years.
“Some people have to pay rent, they have to buy groceries, they have to buy MetroCards, MetroCards are going up again this year too. So they have so many other expenses to think about before school,” said BMCC student Sherrod Staton. “In the 1970s, CUNY used to be free. Then Albany, they decided to make it not free and charge you for it. And it’s been going up every year since then.”