Public Advocate Leticia James and elected lawmakers in both city and state government representing Brooklyn and Queens yesterday listened to City University of New York (CUNY) student testimonies on the ways in which disinvestment has impacted their education and their lives.
The hearing, held at the Brooklyn College Library, was called as CUNY’s Board of Trustees seeks to relinquish student’s control of the student activities fee, which covers services on campuses such as student government, childcare centers, media clubs, and CUNY student senate.
Reversing the use of a referendum and refund system, in the Board’s proposal, would threaten the system that keeps campus press independent and supports activist groups like the government watchdog New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG)..
“For years, New York State has starved CUNY of funding and threatened to cut critical educational opportunity programs,” said Smitha Varghese, Queens College student and NYPRIG Board of Directors Chairperson. “Students have successfully fought off these cuts, and have come together using the Student Activity Fee to educate and engage their peers. Under a CUNY Board of Trustees proposal that first amendment right may be under attack.”
Students testified on rising tuition costs. Per-student state funding has declined 18% since the 2008 recession. Such a disinvestment has left only one in four (26%) of CUNY students to graduate on time. The state has ensured that New York is moving away from the prospect of a free university as tuition is expected to increase $200 next year. Coupled with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed cuts to programs that help low-income students and people of color, the move would further remove the city’s lowest-income students from pursuing an education that could issue them into middle-class.
“I was able to go to college because it was free,” said City Council Member Inez Barron (D-East New York), chair of the council’s Committee on Higher Education and a Hunter College alumna. “I went to a CUNY school and had a fantastic, world-class education because there was no tuition.”
Barron acknowledged the fight facing CUNY students today isn’t fair. “The state has dismally failed CUNY. Student’s tuition should not be the way in which colleges are run to provide the courses and pay instructor’s fees, that should be the obligation of the state,” she said, adding the interests of the board align with Cuomo’s a little too closely.
“As a Board of Trustees you should be able to put pressure on the Governor, so the Governor can do what’s right. But if you look at a list of people who are on the Board of Trustees, many of them are appointed by the Governor,” said Barron.
Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Flatbush, Ditmas Park) and the female Democratic District leader for the 42nd assembly district, assured students that some of their local elected officials are on their side, but that political processes keep certain agendas from passing.
“Because of the political structure of our broken government, a lot of our progressive agendas are not passed,” said Bichotte. She noted that Assembly members have long proposed free university, but were shut down.
Bichotte urged students to continue to be civically engaged, but added lobbying the CUNY Board of Trustees might be a waste of their time. “He [Cuomo] appoints the Board of Trustees, many of them are his puppets, and they’re not going to do anything. He’s a bully there,” she said.
“This is an election year, make sure you come to Albany, and break down the doors and demand. Demand tuition assistant programs are increased. Demand more funding for maintenance, for faculty and adjuncts. Demand to have control of your student activity fee,” she added.
In Brooklyn, 70% of people 25 and older do not have a bachelor’s degree. Investment in CUNY could change that. For many of CUNY’s diverse working-class students, education should be a means to the middle-class. But at present CUNY students are faced with cuts to programs that enable them to afford school, too few advisors, underpaid staff and adjuncts, deplorable and crumbling facilities, limited childcare options, tuition hikes and an overall lack of investment in their success.
James noted that there is a lot more that should be done for CUNY students.
“We should fight for free tuition. It was once free for early immigrants and it should be free for these groups of individuals who represent the diversity of the CUNY system. In the event that’s not a possibility, we should increase per-pupil assistance, we should adjust the rate of reimbursement that CUNY receives from State and the City of New York,” said James.
“The state should provide for more programs like STEP, CSTEP (Science and Technology Entry Program and Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program) for low-income students. And revisit Excelsior, as it is only meeting the needs of two percent of the student population,” the public advocate added.
The Excelsior Scholarship is part of a college accessibility program that in combination with financial aid and very strict eligibility requirements enables a tiny percentage of students to attend SUNY and CUNY schools for free.
James also acknowledged student debt and education as a way into middle-class.
“Student debt is burdening students all across this county. If you want a stable society, a stable middle-class, the best way to do that is through education. Education is the key to success and returns the best dividends. It’s critically important we invest in education.”