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.
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.”
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.”