Cuomo’s “Free” Tuition Plan is a Racist Snub to Working-Class Students

Amir Khafagy Sep 14, 2017

Issue 229

It’s the start of the school year and like many of my fellow students, I am holding high aspirations for the upcoming semester. Yet, at the same time, I have an aching feeling of dread deep in the pit of my stomach.

Normally, at the beginning of a semester, an overwhelming feeling of anxiety about how I am going to pay for my classes at Queens College overcomes me. I wonder if I will qualify for financial aid and debate if I can even afford to take time off from work so that I will be able to qualify for full-time financial aid. Every time the semester starts, I notice that I spend more time stressing over money to afford school than I do over my grades. I stress about another semester skipping meals, missing rent and losing sleep. Luckily our most honorable and gracious governor, Andrew Cuomo, has come to my rescue!  

At first, I, like many of my friends, celebrated the news that New York State colleges were going to become tuition free. It was unbelievable news, something I have been fighting for years.

Three years ago, as an undergraduate student organizer at LaGuardia Community College with People Power Movement, I helped organize a petition drive that collected over 500 student signatures demanding an end to tuition hikes, as well as a more free and democratic state college system. We dropped the petitions off at the governor’s offices in Midtown Manhattan and held a rally in front of the building.

So, when I heard Cuomo announce his Excelsior program for free college tuition at a press conference with Bernie Sanders — at my old alma mater, LaGuardia, no less — my first thought was that the governor finally found the time to read our petition. It looked like all our sacrifice and our hard work was not in vain.

What looked at first to be a revolutionary plan to change the lives of millions of New Yorkers, ended up becoming a plan to further marginalize millions of our state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

But a part of me was suspicious. We native New Yorkers can smell bullshit a mile away. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.  

In the days after the governor made his announcement, the grimy details of the plan began to slowly leak out. Each drop began to look much worse than the last and my optimism slowly died. What looked at first to be a revolutionary plan to change the lives of millions of New Yorkers, ended up becoming a plan to further marginalize millions of our state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. What was supposed to be a plan to bridge divides, will most likely widen those divides. What was supposed to be a plan to spread equality, will end up being a plan that is not only pure and adulterated racism but unhinged class warfare.

Consider the fact that 60 percent of CUNY students go to college tuition for free already. Most members of CUNY’s student population are poor or working class, rendering them eligible for New York’s tuition assistance program (TAP) and for federal Pell grants. More than half of CUNY students dangle dangerously close to the poverty line, earning less than $30,000 a year. That population is also, overwhelming, composed of people of color. In 2015, a CUNY demographic study found that white students make up just 26.2 percent of the senior college population and 15.3 percent of the community college population. Almost a third of students in both the CUNY and SUNY systems go to school part time. Cuomo’s plan demands students take 30 credits a year and graduate on time in order to go to school for “free.” Part-time students, including the 80,000 students in the CUNY system like me, are being overtly ignored by the plan. The governor’s plan punishes students who must work while attending school in order to survive.

Responding to criticism that the program does little to support New York’s neediest students, the governor claimed that the plan incentives part-time students to become full-time students. A statement as arrogant as that can only come out of the mouth of a man who has little clue of what it’s like growing up poor and of color in one of the most unaffordable and economic unequal cities in the world.

Who knew something free could be so expensive?

The state does not provide resources to working class, part-time students of color that would offer them relief from the economic burdens preventing them from pursuing a full-time course load. It is indicative of the pervasive “deserving poor” ideology and institutionally racist policies within the state’s neoliberal political structure. Cuomo’s Excelsior is effectively affirmative action for middle-class whites at the expense of working-class people of color.

And that expense has just got substantially more expensive. For the 80,000 part-time students at CUNY, including undocumented students who are not eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship, the governor’s program has ended up being a trojan horse for tuition hikes.

On July 21, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to enact a $300 tuition hike every year for the next five years. Who knew something free could be so expensive? As Cuomo congratulates himself, portraying himself as a progressive, the most socially and economically oppressed groups of students are footing the bill.

Our continued exclusion within CUNY should be an eye-opening caveat to the struggle that lies ahead. CUNY’s legacy has always been gripped in class and racial conflict. Working-class Black and Latino students in 1969 fought for and won the desegregation of CUNY. The demographic makeup of our university today is a direct result of that struggle. It is up to us to live up to that legacy. We owe it to those who came before us. We owe it to ourselves. And most of all, we owe it to future students. Without a student movement demanding an end to CUNY’s racist and class-prejudicial policies, we will continue to be at the mercy of those who care little about us.

Amir Khafagy is a self-described “Arab-Rican” New Yorker, born and raised. He is a political activist, organizer, writer, performer and spoken word artist. He currently attends Queens College, perusing a masters degree in Urban Affairs.


Photo: Gov. Andrew Cuomo with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at LaGuardia College in January where he unveiled his Excelsior Scholarship program. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin for the Office of Gov. Cuomo.