What's Next for CUNY After The Tuition Hike?

Will a last-second attempt to stem budget woes be the cure, or will it be worse than the disease?

By Albany's notoriously dysfunctional standards, it's already been a banner year for unexpected breakthroughs. The same week in June that the state legislature broke its years-long deadlock over same-sex marriage, it announced a deal that promised to put an end to the year-to-year squabbles over funding for the City University of New York and State University of New York; under the new plan, tuition hikes during the next five years will be coupled with a promise by the state not to further cut funding for the public university systems.

The budget deal followed a busy spring of protests at CUNY, where faculty and students alike spoke out against years of shrinking budgets—amid soaring enrollment—that had, they said, resulted in overcrowded classrooms and students left scrambling to find room in required classes. "I've been here four years, and it's certainly the most student-initiated activism around budget issues that I've seen," says Geoff Kurtz, a Borough of Manhattan Community College political science professor who helped organize "Teach CUNY Week" in March, when professors agreed to set aside class time to discuss CUNY's financial issues. "And faculty who've been here for decades tell me that they haven't seen anything like this since the big wave of student activism in the '90s"—when CUNY students blockaded city bridges and tunnels to protest cuts proposed by Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Yet the solution—raising tuition by $300 each year for the next five years—is likely to only increase complaints that CUNY, which until 1975 offered free tuition as part of its mission to provide higher education to New Yorkers unable to afford more expensive college options, is at risk of pricing out the very students it's meant to serve.

Students across CUNY campuses gave the finger to last year's austerity budget.
Students across CUNY campuses gave the finger to last year's austerity budget.


2011 SUMMER EDUCATION SUPPLEMENT Online Education's Net Worth
E-Learning is starting to take off at NYC universities, but are all the bugs worked out?
By Patrick Arden

With Academic Jobs Scarce, Ph.D's Seek 'Alternative Careers'
By Brenda Iasevoli

Class Action Listings
By Alexis Soloski

An NYU Professor Will Reinstall a Webcam in the Back of His Head
By Michael Rymer

According to data provided by the city's Independent Budget Office, state spending on CUNY has dropped by nearly 8 percent during the last three budget years, while city aid has been almost flat. Tuition hikes have helped raise the overall CUNY budget by about 5 percent during that period—but at the same time, the system has dealt with a massive influx of students, as New Yorkers fleeing the lousy job market sent enrollment soaring by 13 percent, to an all-time record of 262,000.

The result, numerous CUNY faculty and students say, is a system that has been cut to the bone, with a crumbling infrastructure and resources worn thin. "You walk through the BMCC library, and it's striking how few new books there are," says Kurtz. "There are a lot of books from the '60s and '70s and not so much recent."

With more students chasing a diminishing number of courses, it's also made it difficult for many to find the classes they need to graduate. "If there's a sequence of courses, especially in a field like English or math where you have to take courses in a certain order, then not being able to take a course at the right time can throw your graduation off by a year," says Kurtz. Adding to students' scheduling woes: The federal government recently responded to a shortfall in financial aid funds by eliminating Pell grants for summer sessions, terminating one route by which low-income students could catch up on courses during the summer months.

At the same time, enrollment in the remaining classes has swelled, something that faculty complain has increased their workload while diminishing the value of students' classroom experience. When you have four sections of 40 students each, "just learning their first name becomes a huge project," says Costas Panayotakis, a social science professor at City Tech. It's a state of affairs that can force professors to change their teaching styles, says Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY's faculty union: "When the size of the class goes up by 20 percent over three years, then they find themselves having finally to give in and give fewer writing assignments, knowing full well that more writing is what their students need."

Glenn Petersen, chair of the sociology and anthropology departments at Baruch, uses writing fellows from the Communication Institute and the Writing Center to work with students in introductory anthropology classes, which are kept to between 30 and 40 students each. The program, says Petersen, has enabled professors to offer their students—mostly non-native English speakers who have come to Baruch for business degrees—comprehensive writing skills.

Petersen says he's never received anything but positive feedback on the program. Nonetheless, last fall, he says, "We were just told arbitrarily that we were going to have to collapse all these small sections into 'jumbo classes' of 120 students. And with 120 students, you can't do this." The plan was ultimately put off for a year when Baruch's English department agreed to add three students to each of its classes instead, but Petersen is still worried that it will be revived if Baruch can't resolve its space and budget crunch.

At BMCC, says first-year student Domingo Estevez, the administration offers limited access to popular programs, such as the school's top-rated nursing program. "Unless you're an A+ student, you don't get into that program," he says. "We're just basically paying more for less."

Next Page »