This article was adapted from a Gotham Gazette piece.
The New York state legislature approved a bill in July that authorized a tuition increase of $300 every year for the next five years at City University of New York schools. The plan is expected to raise $50 million for CUNY. But the legislation poses a catch-22 for students. While they hope more revenue will reduce ballooning class sizes, save school programs and enable CUNY to hire more full-time faculty, many students studying at a CUNY schools will not be able to afford the increased tuition.
CUNY was founded in 1847 with the mission of making higher education accessible for New York residents, and until 1975 it did not charge tuition. Almost 165 years later, CUNY continues to reflect its original mission: 54 percent of its student body lives in a household with an income of less than $30,000 a year; 74 percent are people of color; 44 percent are first-generation college students; and 47 percent work full or part-time in addition to attending school.
But the recent tuition hikes at CUNY follow the long-term trend downward in state support for higher education, according to Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council of Education. According to Hartle, the legislation is “an extraordinarily important step” for CUNY.
The legislation follows a series of tuition increases at CUNY, which began with a 15 percent increase in 2009. Two years later, students faced another 5 percent increase, and then a 2 percent hike for the fall 2011 semester. This brought tuition for full-time, in-state CUNY undergraduates to $4,920 at senior colleges, and $3,360 at community colleges. Now, with five more years of tuition increases, higher education could become further out of reach for New York’s poorest students.
“Many [CUNY students] hold a full-time job while also going to school full-time. They are at their maximum stress point in terms of finances, and even $300 can be extremely prohibitive,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, the union for CUNY faculty and staff.
“I have students, some of whom are living in shelters, who qualify for food stamps,” said Francesco Crocco, an assistant professor of English at BMCC. “We’re throwing the burden of public education on the people who are least able to pay.”
The most significant impact may be felt at CUNY’s six community colleges. With lower costs, increased flexibility and an emphasis on vocational training, two-year community colleges are a “pathway out of poverty,” according to the Center for an Urban Future. But with higher tuition, a critical avenue into the middle class may become unreachable for a growing number of New York’s young people.
During a series of rallies in May, many CUNY student spoke out against continuing budget slashes, tuition hikes and — on a broader note — what they see as an increasingly inaccessible education system.
“Public education is under attack right now in the sense that it’s headed toward privatization,” said Domingo Estevez, a student at BMCC entering his third semester. “It’s going from a right to a privilege.”
A cure for CUNY? Many members of the New York State Assembly, however, hail the legislation as a resounding success. Speaker Sheldon Silver and Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee, have championed it as a means to bring stability to CUNY tuition.
“While it is unfortunate that tuition must be increased during these difficult economic times, this predictable tuition plan provides students and families the opportunity to plan for the costs of higher education,” said Silver on June 24.
CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein originally conceived of the plan as a means to reduce the university system’s reliance on outside funding.
“In an era when public support for public higher education is hemorrhaging, New York state has provided predictability…It’s a bold move that will pay dividends for years to come. This is good for institutions, it’s good for the families and it’s good for the state,” Goldstein said in a press statement after the legislature approved the measure.
To address affordability, the legislation created a tuition credit to be provided by CUNY for in-state financial aid students whose tuition costs exceed the $5,000 ceiling set by the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), New York state’s financial aid grant program. Supporters of the plan hope it will help students keep up with tuition. Students who received the maximum TAP award will receive $5,300 after the $300 tuition hike — with the extra $300 offset by CUNY. A student who receives a $2,500 TAP award will receive $2,650 — or $150 in tuition credit –- after the increase.
Falling through the cracks. This provision, however, has not done much to dispel concerns for Estevez. Two of his acquaintances dropped out last year because they couldn’t afford CUNY’s 2010 tuition hikes.
“Financial aid is there, but not everybody qualifies for it. There are a lot of people being left out,” he said.
According to Bowen, those most likely to be left out are part-time students, who must take a certain number of class credits to qualify, and students who technically are still their parents’ dependent but do not receive financial support from their family. For students whose families make just above the $80,000 income ceiling for TAP, tuition increases could also prove overwhelming.
“Thousands of students already fall through the cracks in TAP, and many others may be discouraged from entering college by the escalating cost,” said Bowen.
But students may not be the only ones dissatisfied with the new tuition credits. While the state pays for TAP, CUNY will have to cover the credits. This will force CUNY to funnel some of the money it gains from higher tuition into financial aid. And with CUNY serving some of New York’s poorest students, this could prove a substantial figure.
“If we need to increase tuition and then increase the amount we’re giving in financial aid, I’m not sure what we’re getting,” said Cory Provost, chair of the CUNY Student Senate.
Goldstein, however, has remained optimistic, claiming that even after the tuition credits there will still be substantial revenue to invest in CUNY education.
Read the full post at Gotham Gazette.