Will the largest urban university system in the country become free?


Throughout the pandemic, Jada Shannon, 25, has found it difficult to juggle her online classroom work and trying to survive a pandemic. A student at Hunter College majoring in media studies and women’s and gender studies, Shannon hoped to graduate on time, but the pandemic upended her schedule. With in-class classes resuming at all 25 City University of New York (CUNY) campuses last fall, Shannon was excited to get back on track.

However, when she went to sign up for the private lessons she needed for her major, Shannon found many that were no longer available. The professors she had come to admire no longer taught. It was imperative that she finish her studies as soon as possible or risk losing her financial aid for studies. But not being able to take all the classes she needed left her perplexed.

“I wonder if I can finish my major and take more classes in the future,” Shannon said. “To me, that’s a sign that women’s and gender studies aren’t really valued and that’s so important because it’s the study of oppression.”

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Shannon’s story is not unique. As the pandemic ravaged communities across the United States, public university systems such as CUNY took a heavy hit. In total, CUNY’s 25 campuses lost approximately $64 million in tuition revenue and recorded a 4.4% decline in enrollment in fall 2020. Dozens of faculty and staff have tragically succumbed to COVID-19, the the biggest number of any university system in the country. In July 2020, New York To cut funding for CUNY’s 2021 fiscal year of $20 million. On 3,000 university assistants were fired. As of 2015, CUNY had over 7,500 full-time faculty; now CUNY has only 6,822, a reduction of 9%.

“These people aren’t being replaced, but over time the student body is very stable and has expanded,” said James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union that represents CUNY faculty. “The ratio of full-time faculty to students is really going down and whole departments are running out of faculty.”

Last year, Brooklyn College administrators asked departments to cancel more than 25% of its fall classes, leaving many students like Shannon in a state of panic. Yet many argue that while the pandemic has undoubtedly hurt CUNY, decades of divestment and austerity policies have left CUNY in an already fragile state. Now students and organizers are pushing for a new deal for CUNY that sees the university system return to a tuition-free model.

CUNY IS THE NATION THE GREATEST urban public university system, serving one of the most racially and economically diverse student associations in the country. Known as “poor Harvard’s man” since its founding in 1847 with the Free Academy, CUNY’s mission has always professed to “provide a first-class public education to all students, regardless of means or background.”

Today, this mission is cut short. Alan Aja, a professor of public and urban policy and chair of the Puerto Rican and Latin American studies department at Brooklyn College, has struggled to keep his department afloat during the pandemic. “The effects on ethnic studies departments like mine are myriad: fewer course offerings, larger class sizes, fewer tenured/tenure-track faculty to teach, counsel and mentor students, reliance on respect of exploited auxiliary instructors who are struggling to make ends meet. meet, overworked professors of color, excessive committee work and service to the institution, fewer resources to do research,” he says. “Then they have the audacity to judge us solely on our productivity.” Davis says the model in which funding is allocated to programs such as ethnic studies is fundamentally flawed. He argues that reliance on tuition fees to generate funds is a hallmark example of how austerity policies are inherently racist.

“Departments that cannot demonstrate, in effect, that they are paying themselves by bringing in enough students to generate the tuition to justify offering the courses are still on the chopping block,” he said. “And too often it’s programs like ethnic studies, programs that grew out of social movements in New York and beyond.”

Hailey Lam, student organizer with Free CUNY! movement as well as a Brooklyn College senior majoring in English and political science, has also found it difficult during the pandemic, especially with staff cuts.

“For students, one of their biggest issues is that there are no counselors and they have no idea how to navigate the school,” she says. “A lot of freshmen end up paying out of pocket for classes they don’t need for their majors because they don’t know how majors work at CUNY.”

As an added frustration, Lam says, even during the closures, students are forced to pay activity fees to fund student organizations and other programs. Classes are often canceled on short notice, she adds.

Although on paper CUNY was tuition-free until 1976, not all students benefited. Until 1970, CUNY obligatory students to pass a series of competitive tests, graduate with a minimum high school GPA, and receive a “Regents” diploma. Additionally, CUNY was only free for full-time students; part-time students had to pay out of pocket.

“We have this tendency to idealize free tuition,” said Professor Stephen Brier, co-author of Austerity blues: fighting for the soul of public higher education. “But it was still free qualified and limited education, and many poor working-class students paid tuition and fees.”

Things changed after black and Latino students at City College led a series of successful campus takeovers to demand more access for minority students. CUNY administrators not only gave in to student demands, but exceeded them, implementing an open admissions policy that guaranteed all New York high school graduates a place at a CUNY school. Within a year, the student body had doubled, and within seven years, CUNY’s predominantly white student body had to become a majority system of people of color that better reflected the mosaic of the city.

But despite the significant demographic change, the victory was short-lived. In 1976, as the city faced a devastating budget crisis, state and federal authorities imposed massive austerity measures that cut through the city’s social fabric. For the first time in CUNY history, the New York State Council on Higher Education has implemented tuition fees in exchange for a full state takeover of college finances of CUNY over four years.

“Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans running the state government, it’s been on a downward spiral ever since,” Brier said. “It’s 45 years of austerity budgets and austerity politics and it’s this unwillingness to understand how important CUNY is to the broader city and state economy, as well as a upward mobility pathway for working-class students.”

Over the past three decades, the CUNY has never returned to its pre-budget crisis state. From the early 1990s through the 2019-2020 academic year, New York City full-time equivalent student investment in CUNY senior colleges decreases 37.7% overall, adjusted for inflation.

In his first year in office, in 2011, disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo implemented a devastating budget cuts which resulted in a $95.1 million cut in state support for CUNY senior colleges and a $12.3 million cut in base support for CUNY community colleges. In the three years to 2011, the state had already cut $350 million from CUNY’s budget. In fact, from the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 to the current semester, academic investment in CUNY’s senior colleges has decreases of 20.57%.

“Over the past decade, not just in New York but across the country, we have seen a major disinvestment in public higher education,” said New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes.

DUE TO THE PANDEMIC, CUNY faces even deeper budget cuts, but in March, thanks to the US bailout, CUNY was able to receive $794 million in federal aid. In total, CUNY received $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funds. Half will be distributed emergency financial assistance programs and services to help students with housing, food and health care. The rest will cover institutional costs and additional support services.

The money was enough to avoid further budget cuts for the foreseeable future. But though relieved, Davis believes that without a long-term commitment from the state to fully fund the university system and undo decades of austerity, it’s only a matter of time before CUNY is on the hook again. the log.

“The paradox is that CUNY really needed a major investment from the state when it came to the last budget cycle and instead we just sort of broke even,” said- he declared. “It wasn’t enough to break even, because that’s after many, many years of divestment, stable budgets and increased spending. »

The failure of President Biden’s proposal for a tuition-free community college, which was originally part of the Build Back Better program, has again dashed hopes for a tuition-free CUNY. But in February, Senator Gounardes presented a Invoice called the New Deal for CUNY, which aims to reverse decades of systematic underfunding. Beyond that, the bill will also eliminate undergraduate tuition fees, replacing them with public funds. It would transfer $332 million in funding available to CUNY undergraduates through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to help offset the cost of free tuition .

“CUNY is probably the best avenue for economic mobility we have in New York,” Gounardes said. “So investing in CUNY is investing not just in the 500,000 students who attend CUNY, but in the millions of people who are connected and affiliated with those students, and that has a massive ripple effect on the whole economy in New York. .”

For Jada Shannon, though she has struggled over the past two years, she remains hopeful for a tuition-free future.

“Yes, CUNY can definitely be free. I think it will happen in my lifetime.

This story was reported with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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