Photo by Sam Maritim
Ilianna Fermia (L) and Amy Robin (R) protesting tuition hikes and funding cuts at Sunday’s rally.
BY LYNN EDMONDS
Since the 1970s, New York State has been funding the City University of New York’s senior colleges. But when Gov. Andrew Cuomo brought out his budget for fiscal year 2016-17, it had one-third of that cost, or $485 million, transferred to New York City.
The proposal was met with shock and displeasure from both students and elected officials who represents Queens and the rest of the city.
On Sunday, several hundred students from the CUNY system, which serves 550,000 students at 23 campuses, protested the proposed cut in state funding with a march across the Brooklyn Bridge from the City Hall to Brooklyn Borough Hall. They marched with elected officials from Brooklyn, Manhattan and The Bronx.
Students spoke out about their upset over the funding cut, which they said indicated that their education was not a priority for Cuomo.
“This is really a response to CUNY as you know it being under attack across the board, for students, for faculty and for non-faculty staff,” said Danny Pecoraro, a CUNY student who attended the rally with his father, a Queens College alumnus.
President of Jamaica’s York College, Dr. Marcia Keizs, also said in an email the proposed budget was bad for CUNY.
“A $485 million reduction in support from the state would place CUNY and York College at great risk,” she said.
Her statement was seconded by Dr. Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, who responded with a similar statement.
“A $485 million reduction in support from the State would place CUNY and LaGuardia Community College at risk of having to reduce or eliminate some of our programs and services that help so many adults pursue a better life through higher education,” she said.
But CUNY’s Chancellor James Milliken was less inclined to deliberately criticize the “suggested shift in CUNY funding.” In his testimony on the 2016-17 State Executive Budget, he used somewhat neutral and guarded language, calling the budget item an “eye-catcher.”
“Determining the appropriate level of state and city support for CUNY is an important responsibility of our elected leaders, especially in this body. My obligation, I believe, is to convince you that a strong CUNY is vital to the future of the state and those New Yorkers who need opportunity the most,” Milliken told legislators.
One factor that made it difficult to take a stand was an allocation of $240 million to settle faculty contracts that Cuomo proposed in tandem with the cuts. State senators who opposed the budget shift said Cuomo should decouple this “carrot” from the proposed cuts to the school system.
Also in the Fiscal Budget, Cuomo proposed to extend CUNY2020, a 2011 initiative to increase tuition by $300 each year over five years and to eliminate funding for the Accelerated Studies Associate Program, which had more than tripled graduation rates at CUNY’s community colleges.
The continued tuition hikes were another point of contention for the protesters, though the Chancellor said the planned hikes helped create stability and were necessary.
“I pretty much started in 2012 when tuition was about $2,000 for about four classes, now I’m taking three classes and it’s about $4,000,” Amy Robin, a student at City Tech said. “I don’t live with parents, so I’m pretty much responsible for rent and tuition, so for them to actually raise it is just wrong.”
Ilianna Fermia, a student at Lehman College in The Bronx, felt similarly.
“A lot of us have parents that are paying for it out of pocket, a lot of us have a lot of financial problems, and I don’t think Governor Cuomo takes that into consideration when it comes to the tuition,” Fermia said.
Fermia added that that the tuition hikes delayed students from getting out into the workforce because they couldn’t afford to be in school full-time.
“The more credits you take the worse it is for you, and if you want to finish early it’s like you can’t because you can’t pay it all at once if you’re paying out of pocket,” she said.
Alan Shram, a professor at John Jay College, found this to be the case with his students as well.
“Financial concerns are the number one reason why it takes people longer to graduate,” he said, adding, that while the $300 increase each year might not seem like a lot of money, for many of his students it was.
“They can’t even graduate. Fifty dollars for a cap and gown, a lot of them don’t have it,” he said.
Many of CUNY’s students are part of groups that have historically been excluded from higher education.
A 2015 fact sheet from CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress says that “77 percent of CUNY undergraduates are people of color; 42 percent are members of the first generation in their families to attend college; 37 percent are immigrants and 54 percent come from families with annual incomes of less than $30,000.”
Maceo Karriem, a student at LaGuardia Community College who took a year off to pursue a fellowship in social policy, said the CUNY system was an important way to reach the 17 percent of youth ages 16-24 in Jamaica who were neither working nor employed.
“CUNY is really the only portal to go into the working force,” he said.
And while most students do get financial aid, others fall in a nebulous middle ground.
One of the most impassioned legislators at Sunday’s protest, Assemblywoman Diana Richardson (WF-Brooklyn) argued that today’s CUNY students were tomorrow’s taxpayers.
“As far as I’m concerned, we need to be talking about investing more into CUNY,” Richardson, a proud CUNY alumna, said. “We get our degrees, and we come back and we work. And we come back and we pay taxes.”
The Assembly recently rejected the proposed budget cuts and tuition increases.
Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Fresh Meadows) issued a statement lauding the decision. She also joined lawmakers from the Puerto Rican and Hispanic Task Force in writing a letter to speaker Carl Heastie calling for strengthened funding for CUNY.
But the Governor’s bill will be more likely to pass in the Senate, which is majority Republican and more fiscally conservative.
Nonetheless, ranking Member of the Higher Education Committee state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) and 18 other state senators signed on to a letter saying they wanted to see the state take on the responsibility for funding CUNY once again.
If the $485 million was eliminated from CUNY’s budget, it would result in “massive reductions and could result in the closing of one or more colleges,” they wrote.
But as to what the precise effect on students would be, Stavisky said she could not tell until negotiations were complete.
“Whether it be reduction in the number of classes or courses, overcrowding, programs will not be available, it’s very hard to say,” she said.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana