I prepared a statement outlining a few of the reasons why I will be voting no on this budget. I hope that my colleagues on the board will find just cause to join me in voting this agenda item down.
Last fall, when this board approved the budget request for the 2018 Fiscal Year and the four-year master plan that included tuition increases for that four-year time frame, I delivered a statement asking board members to reconsider the proposal to raise tuition. The gist of my statement was that the students of this university are paying more than their fair share, while our state legislature continues to divest crucial funding from our university. Tuition hikes have become something of a new normal here at CUNY, with tuition increasing annually. If the CUNY master plan goes as intended, we will have tuition increases for the next four years. That would mean tuition hikes for 9 out of 10 years. There is nothing normal about that. Especially not here at CUNY, a university that was founded with the mission of providing a quality and accessible education for people in poverty, immigrants, working-class people, the young, the old, the truest essence of your everyday New Yorker.
Earlier this year, I was pleasantly surprised to see that higher education was one of the leading conversations during budget negotiations. I vividly remember going on Facebook and seeing that many of my friends were excited because they had just read some headlines from the New York State governor’s office stating that CUNY and SUNY will now be tuition free. Some of the student government leaders declared our mission accomplished—we finally don’t have to worry about tuition. Indeed, if you go the CUNY website right now, there is a link to an article titled “Tuition-free CUNY in Fall 2017.” As you could imagine, some of our students were confused when I told them that the board would be voting on tuition hikes today. They said “Well, I thought tuition was free at CUNY. Why would they increase something that’s free?” And there lies the problem. How can we juxtapose CUNY tuition increases with a tuition-free CUNY? There is a glaring contradiction in the rhetoric that we are using here. We should aim to be as direct and clear as possible because this equation does not add up.
So whose tuition is free? And perhaps more importantly, whose tuition is going up? The fact is that most CUNY students already attend CUNY for free. TAP, PELL and other grants and scholarships already cover tuition cost for most of our students. So when we increase tuition by $200, that means that for most CUNY students who receive full TAP and PELL, they will have $200 less to take home for books, transportation and other essential expenses. For international students and undocumented students who receive no financial aid, their tuition will be going up; for part-time students who receive limited to no financial aid and often work to pay their way through school, as they raise their kids and take care of their parents, their tuition is going up $200. That leaves us with the small group of in-state students who do not receive enough financial aid to cover their tuition and go to school full time and fulfill all the requirements to be eligible for the Excelsior scholarship—possibly as few as 2 to 5 percent of the CUNY population. For those students, there will be a net increase in funding next year. And for most students, we will have tuition hikes. And yet, we are declaring a “tuition-free CUNY in fall 2017.”
This conversation on tuition has become increasingly involved. There is a fair amount of uncertainty about which specific set of students stands to benefit most from the different sets of proposals that have been adopted this year. As a student board member, and after consulting with students from around the university, I can firmly say that these tuition hikes will be harmful to most CUNY students. This increase will deter students from enrolling in bachelor’s degree programs after they finish their studies at community colleges. Unintentionally, this policy will prejudicially marginalize the neediest students from attending senior colleges. We are well aware of the statistics of the students who attend our senior colleges in comparison to the students who attend our community colleges. This tuition hike threatens to widen the achievement gap at CUNY.
I also call your attention to the explanation given in the resolution. It states, “The revenue generated from this increase will be used to cover costs from the University’s recent collective bargaining agreement with its faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress. This new labor agreement will directly benefit students by enabling the university to continue to recruit and retain outstanding faculty.”
The reason we have tuition increases for the 2018 fiscal year is that the PSC negotiated higher salaries for our professors. This explanation is insufficient for multiple reasons. And it really serves to highlight the issue that we have with CUNY’s funding.
First, consider that from 2011 to 2016 tuition went up $300 every year. We had five consecutive years of tuition increases. During those years, we also had stagnant wages as our faculty went without a contract for seven years. So if tuition hikes correlated with faculty salaries, I’d suspect negotiating a contract in the middle of five consecutive years of tuition increases would have been more feasible. Second, consider that the university is a fairly large enterprise. I would imagine that the cost of many other things—aside from faculty salaries—have also gone up. So I am not sure why we are singling out the faculty contracts as the impetus for these tuition hikes. It would make more sense for us to point to the fact that the Maintenance of Effort Bill that was vetoed by Governor Cuomo in 2015 would have gone to cover the cost to the inflationary expenses associated with faculty contacts and other university expenses. In short, it would make more sense if we highlight the lack of investment in CUNY by the state, instead of singling out CUNY faculty for negotiating a living wage.