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Most students, though, say their main concern is tuition, which has already risen substantially to close previous budget gaps. (Next year's tuition will actually rise by $530: the new $300 hike, on top of a previously approved $230 increase.) For the low-income New Yorkers who make up most of the CUNY student body—38 percent of CUNY students come from families with $20,000 a year in income or less, according to Bowen—this can be a significant hurdle.
"The amounts that we're talking about for tuition increases don't sound like much, but to our students, they're huge," says Kurtz. With many students already working full-time to afford class fees, often at low-wage jobs, he says, "to increase tuition by a few hundred dollars is something that may actually prevent someone from finishing a college degree."
For that reason, June's tuition deal comes as a mixed blessing: Though it will guarantee that CUNY's budget will increase modestly during the next five years—the only way the governor will be able to cut funding will be by declaring a "fiscal emergency"—it largely does so on the backs of students. The state agreed to "maintenance of effort" language, but it locks in nontuition funding at only the current historically low levels.
State assemblymember Deborah Glick, the higher education committee chair who helped broker the tuition deal, notes that CUNY's poorest students will be protected from the increased fees: Anyone receiving full financial aid through the state Tuition Assistance Program will be exempted from tuition hikes, while those receiving partial TAP will see increases on a prorated basis. (Of the 49,660 low-income students in CUNY four-year schools, about 78 percent get less than the TAP maximum and will see their tuition increase.) And, she says, it's better than what she calls the "wild vagaries" of the old year-to-year CUNY budget battles: "If you were fortunate enough to go to school for three or four years [with no increase], fine, but then the next year, someone who just was in their second year suddenly had a $600 increase in [their] tuition."
Because some of the $300-a-year increases will go to tuition credits for TAP recipients—especially at CUNY, which has far more low-income students than SUNY—it's yet unclear exactly how much more money the system will see as a result. Still, says Glick, she hopes that the new funds will enable CUNY schools to "stop treading water or throwing things overboard [and] start to rebuild full-time faculty."
In any case, the tuition hike—and resulting revenue—will affect only CUNY's 11 senior colleges that offer four-year degrees. The city's eight community colleges, which serve predominantly working and low-income New Yorkers, aren't included in the deal; they will continue to face year-to-year battles over tuition and budgets.
The underlying problem, say tuition-hike opponents, is that cuts in state funding have left CUNY increasingly reliant on tuition to pay its bills, forcing the system to choose between squeezing its low-income students and cutting corners on programs. According to IBO numbers, in 1989 CUNY relied on tuition and fees for 20 percent of its budget; today, that figure is 41 percent.
"This specific agreement aside, the trend is pretty well established: Public support goes down a lot, those budget gaps are partly made up by tuition increases, but despite the tuition increases, the quality of education erodes," says Kurtz. "Students have a harder time getting the classes they need, in general class sizes are increasing over time, and students are lost in the crowd."
The combination of tuition hikes and budget cuts amounts to "de-prioritizing school," complains Estevez. "Public education is headed toward being private. There are going to be students who are struggling as it is, and you're telling them they have to pay anywhere from two, three hundred dollars more. They're going to know that school's not for them."