Education

Could the Era of Free Tuition Return to CUNY?

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President Obama’s plan to give roughly 9 million Americans free access to community college — saving students an average of $3,800 per year while costing the federal government billions — may face tough passage in a Republican Congress. But New York City councilmember Inez Barron has her own plan to push the five boroughs back into an era of tuition-free college.

Born in Brooklyn, Barron attended Hunter College in the 1960s at a time when CUNY tuition was waived for students who graduated from high school with at least a B average. For Barron — who went on to work at the Board of Education for 36 years as a teacher, administrator, and principal — the opportunity was priceless.

“I wasn’t able to go away to the schools that had accepted me, nor NYU, because the tuition was prohibitive,” Barron says. “Had it not been for the fact that there was free tuition for those who met the requirements, I would have not gone to college…I appreciate that and I don’t take it lightly.”

When CUNY’s free-tuition policy was ended in 1976 amid the city’s fiscal crisis, students boycotted classes for three days and faculty members organized a hunger strike. Today, tuition costs $6,030 per year at CUNY’s eleven senior colleges and $4,500 per year at its seven community colleges. With so many young Americans struggling with student loan debt and joblessness, Barron says it’s time for the city to resume footing the bill.

“For the last twenty years the state and the city have abdicated their responsibility to provide the educational opportunities and formats that our students need,” Barron says. “They have not fulfilled their obligation and their responsibility, so it’s time to catch up.”

Though she calls Obama’s plan “laudable,” and hopes the initiative will continue to put a spotlight on the importance of tuition-free higher education, Barron believes a bill specific to New York City is still necessary — one that would ideally include four-year institutions and make college “free and unencumbered from the outset.”

A tangible bill has yet to be formulated, and the exact funds needed to pull off a project of this magnitude (and, perhaps more importantly, where exactly those funds would come from) are still unknown. But Barron is hopeful that her plan will be solidified in time to be included in this year’s city budget, and that the recent national attention will help expedite the process.

“I think it’s a matter of zeitgeist, the times that are happening,” Barron says. “We need to provide better opportunities, without the economic and financial hindrances to getting a college education.”

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