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Putting CUNY Out of Reach: As Tuition Increases, State Funding Falls Short

Alex Ellefson Mar 11

It was an icy February morning in Albany. Hundreds of students from New York’s public colleges streamed out of buses near the state capitol building. Some of them had woken up as early as 5 a.m. and been on the road for almost four hours in order to meet with their representatives and pass along an urgent message: that their colleges need greater investment and that the next state budget is the place to deliver it.

Queens College student Mohammed Samra said he had never seen so many students come out to Albany. The first time he made the trip was almost four years ago, after the state voted to increase tuition at New York’s public colleges by $1,500 over five years. Now, as the City University of New York (CUNY) system — which includes Queens College and 10 other senior colleges, as well as seven community colleges — and State University of New York (SUNY) schools enter the final year of the painful tuition hikes, Samra said the large turnout showed that students were feeling the pinch.

“We’re here to say: You’ve got to give us a break. Every time there’s a shortage of money in the system, you can’t reach into the students’ pockets,” he said.

CUNY was founded in 1847 as the Free Academy of the City of New York with the purpose of offering free higher education to “the children of the whole people.” It went on to provide a free college education to generations of students from working-class and immigrant families, and CUNY’s present-day student body continues to be made up of students of mostly modest means. But since tuition was introduced in 1976 the cost of attending has steadily increased, to more than $6,000 at the senior colleges and $4,500 at the community colleges for this academic year.

In 2011, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature teamed up to pass NYSUNY 2020, a bill that allowed CUNY and SUNY, New York’s public university systems, to raise tuition by $300 per year for five years. The tuition hikes were meant to address deficits resulting from the steep budget cuts that followed the 2008 recession, which was accompanied by a surge in college enrollment. As part of the bill, the state pledged to provide consistent funding levels every year so that the extra tuition revenue would go toward reducing class sizes, increasing resources for student services and improving graduation rates.

However, before the bill passed, Cuomo stripped out a provision introduced by the legislature that would have required the state to cover increases in mandatory costs. Each year, the cost of operating CUNY rises due to rent hikes, increasing supplies and equipment expenditures, higher energy costs and mandatory step increases in pay for full-time faculty and staff.

This year, Cuomo’s executive budget doesn’t allocate a penny to cover the $62.9 million in mandatory costs at CUNY’s senior colleges. The state budget process is currently in its last stages, with last-minute deals being negotiated in Albany before the March 31 deadline.

If a deal is not made to cover CUNY’s mandatory costs,  the burden will once again fall on the students’ shoulders. Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents CUNY faculty and professional staff, said that the failure to cover these costs amounts to another form of state disinvestment in higher education.

“You cannot call [the state’s funding] consistent when the real dollar value of the money is less and less,” she said. “This is a really critical year because we’re coming into the last year of the SUNY 2020 program. The failure to cover inflationary costs needs to be fixed. Otherwise, we’ll just see a continuing spiral of disinvestment and students carrying more and more of the weight of paying for a college education.”

Decades of Declining Support

For decades, the state has been withdrawing its financial support for CUNY colleges and asking students to make up the difference. Since 1990, state support for CUNY’s senior colleges has declined by more than a quarter, falling from 74 to 53 percent as a proportion of total revenue. At community colleges, the state’s contribution has fallen from 36 to 25 percent. During that time, the proportion of total revenue contributed by students through tuition and fees has more than doubled.

The higher tuition rates have not provided students with greater access to full-time faculty. In 1975, the last year that CUNY offered a free education, there were 11,500 full-time faculty members teaching 250,000 students. Today enrollment is at an all-time high of about 274,000 students. Meanwhile, there are only 7,500 full-time faculty employed at CUNY, according to testimony given by CUNY Chancellor James Milliken to the state Assembly earlier this year. CUNY relies on poorly paid, part-time adjunct faculty to teach the majority of its classes.

“A big part of the higher education experience for students is having mentorship and guidance from full-time professors,” said CUNY-City Tech student Lucas Almonte, who is also the vice chair of legislative affairs for CUNY’s University Student Senate. “A lot of CUNY students come from low-income backgrounds, immigrant backgrounds, and many of us are the first in our family to go to college. We need people to help us navigate the college experience and full-time faculty are our mentors.”

According to a survey conducted by CUNY last year, more than half of CUNY undergraduate students come from households earning less than $30,000 a year. Seventy-five percent of CUNY students are people of color and 42 percent are the first generation in their family to attend college.

However, Cuomo’s 2015-2016 executive budget cuts funding to some of the programs proven to have the greatest success at improving graduation and retention rates for low-income students.

One of these, CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), was slated by the governor to have all $1.7 million of its state funding cut. The program is now in its eighth year and provides admitted low-income community college students with additional advisement services and financial support. It has seen great successes, with graduation rates for ASAP students coming out more than three times higher than the national average for urban community colleges. More than 8,000 students have participated during these eight years, though that is only a small fraction of the student population at the city’s community colleges, which had almost 100,000 students enrolled in fall 2013.

Cuomo’s executive budget withdraws support from ASAP at a time when other liberal politicians are championing the program. President Barack Obama cited ASAP as an effective means to improve graduation rates while outlining his plan to provide free tuition for most community college students. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to provide CUNY with an additional $35 million in order to expand the program over the next five years. New York City already contributes almost 90 percent of ASAP’s $17.1 million budget.

A year ago, the state Legislature restored ASAP’s state funding after Cuomo cut it from his budget. The CUNY students who traveled to Albany in February asked lawmakers to reinstate it once again.

CUNY spokesperson Michael Arena also expressed hope that funding for ASAP will be restored by the legislature. He added that the governor’s budget “includes many important advancements for CUNY,” such as new funding for teacher training in early childhood education and endorsement of the New York Dream Act.

Life Sure Is Good on Milliken’s Island

At CUNY more than half of the undergraduates come from households that make less than $30,000 per year, legions of part-time instructors eke out a subsistence wage and the faculty has been working under an expired contract since 2010. But that doesn’t mean everyone is struggling financially.

For exhibit A, there’s CUNY Chancellor James Milliken. His base pay is $670,000 per year. He also receives an $18,000 per month housing allowance that allows him to live for free in a swanky Upper East Side pad that has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths, a formal dining room and a terrace. He also receives a free car and driver and is allowed to make additional money sitting on corporate boards. Should he last five years at CUNY, he will be entitled to a full year’s pay upon his departure, even if he is fired with cause.

Milliken’s golden parachute, however, can hardly touch that of his predecessor, Matthew Goldstein, who resigned as chancellor in 2013 to become board chair of J.P. Morgan Funds with an estimated salary of at least $500,000 per year. Before Goldstein left for Wall Street, the CUNY Board of Trustees crowned him “Chancellor Emeritus,” which entitled him to one year of “study leave” at $490,000 plus five more years at a salary of $300,000, for a total payoff of $1.95 million over six years.

Chancellors aren’t the only CUNY administrators doing well for themselves. In June 2012, less than eight months after approving a five-year, 31 percent tuition hike for students, the CUNY board increased the upper limit of the pay scale for senior executive titles by 41 percent. Maximum pay for CUNY college presidents was bumped up by 23-–29 percent, putting them all on a path to making over $300,000 per year.

On the day the new pay scale was approved, students barred from entering the board meeting erupted in protest in the hallway outside. They were quickly hustled out of the building by CUNY security officers.

— John Tarleton

In a notable step for immigrant rights in New York, Cuomo included a Dream Act provision in his executive budget proposal that would make the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) available to undocumented immigrant students in New York. Many believe that his inclusion of the measure in the executive budget almost guarantees that it will pass, but considering that Albany conservatives have obstructed passage of the state Dream Act for years, it remains to be seen what the outcome of the negotiations will be.

Many students who traveled to Albany said they support the Dream Act funding. But while expanding TAP to include undocumented immigrants would be a great achievement, they also said there are many other barriers to receiving TAP that need to be lifted. In the past, the state Legislature has voted to stop making the funds available to graduate students, those who are incarcerated and those who have defaulted on federal student loans.

More important, when TAP was introduced in the 1970s, it was designed to meet the needs of traditional students who enrolled in college full-time right out of high school and either lived on campus or with their parents. The demographics at public colleges, and especially community colleges, have changed considerably since then. Many adults are returning to school after they’ve joined the workforce and some of them have families to support.

“TAP was originally designed for a different kind of student. The student of 1973 is really not the same as the student of 2015,” said Farouk Abdallah, deputy director of the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), which is the state’s largest student advocacy group.

One aspect of TAP that Abdallah said increases college dropout rates is the requirement that a student be enrolled full time for the first two semesters of college. Many students fold under the pressure to work and study full time.

Pawel Rosanski, who just began taking classes at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College this year, had to enroll full time in order to qualify for TAP while also working part time at a coffee shop. He said his schedule is exhausting.

“The pressure is really horrible because I have no days off. If I could go to school part time it would be much easier,” he said.

Despite only having been enrolled in CUNY for a few weeks, Pawel said he made the trip up to Albany this year because he believes public higher education should be free.

“Education is the first step in decreasing the economic gap between rich and poor. If people don’t have access to that, then you can’t fight income inequality,” he said. “The government should start working for its people. We shouldn’t have to come here to fight for people to attend college.”

Alex Ellefson is an Indypendent editorial fellow and a 2014 graduate of CUNY-Brooklyn College.


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