COVID-19 and the Struggle Over CUNY Tuition

Before the coronavirus wreaked its havoc, Lael Manalo’s days started early and ended late. The Hunter College senior’s lifestyle featured long commutes and full days of work followed by evening classes.

Manalo began working as a dental assistant this past year to help cover her tuition. Before she lost her job due to COVID-19, the full-time student worked between 22 and 26 hours per week across the four days the dentist’s office she worked at was open. “Not only was it a challenge to find time to do homework,” she said. “It was a challenge to find time and stay sane.”

Financial aid used to cover her tuition — she says this was one of her main reasons for choosing Hunter — but after two years, her financial aid mysteriously diminished, and her parents stepped in to pay her tuition even though it was difficult for them.

But Manalo soon began to feel guilty about the money her parents were spending on her, and for her fourth year of college, she decided to pay her own tuition through a combination of work and federal loans. Now that she’s lost her job, her parents will step in again to help her make her tuition payments.

“I don’t think I would be really busting my ass to work 26 hours a week if I was still receiving [aid],” she said. Referring to Hunter’s financial aid department, Manalo said “I don’t think they realize that [tuition] is expensive for some people.”

Tuition after COVID-19

Manalo is hardly alone in her working-class hustle. According to a 2016 survey of undergraduate students at the City University of New York, more than one quarter worked for pay for more than 20 hours per week. Now, CUNY is considering asking students like her to pay more in tuition and fees while the state, experiencing its own coronavirus-related financial turmoil, has proposed cuts to higher education. 

When in-person classes were canceled at CUNY in mid-March because of the virus, the University Student Senate, the university’s highest student governance body, began calling for a full tuition reimbursement. But as CUNY administration has not expressed willingness to reimburse students’ tuition, USS has focused its energy on opposing a tuition hike that passed in the fall and is set to apply this coming fall semester.

Passed by the CUNY board of trustees in December, the price increase includes a $100 increase in tuition and a new $60 health and wellness fee per semester. Together, these additional costs amount to a $320 per-year increase in the price of attending a CUNY school. 

When the $60 fee was passed, some took umbrage at the idea that they should be charged extra for health and wellness. At a rally at Baruch College, CUNY labor union president Barbara Bowen called the fee “illogical and strange and unacceptable.” At a public hearing on higher education, CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said that money from the fee would go toward hiring mental health counselors, expanding hours at wellness clinics and addressing other issues as necessary on individual campuses.

Criticism for the health and wellness fee, as well as for the tuition hike, is resurfacing now as students face the financial fallout from COVID-19 — since most of them are people of color and many have household incomes of less than $20,000, CUNY students are disproportionately vulnerable to the economic and health consequences of the pandemic. In light of this, USS has invited people to speak against the price increase at a public hearing that will take place remotely next month. It says it has collected testimony from over 1,000 students, faculty and alumni who believe tuition should be frozen. 

The state of CUNY funding

At a recent press conference hosted by CUNY Rising Alliance, City College student Kasson Colon Mangin shared emotional testimony about his family’s food insecurity and his mental health struggles. He asked how his situation could be possible in a nation as wealthy as the U.S, asking: “What does it mean for students of color when the financial capital of the world is shaken to the core by an economic impact that’s predicted to be more shattering than 9/11 and the recession of 2008 combined?”

The government offers little consolation. New York State, which provides most of the funding for CUNY’s senior colleges, continues to lose money. A dismal state financial plan released in late April cites a decline in tax revenue of 14% over the past two months while warning that the economic fallout from the coronavirus may continue for years to come. 

The plan includes a spending cut of $8.2 billion in fiscal year 2021 to localities such as higher education. In anticipation of budget cuts, CUNY has already laid off adjunct professors and cut course offerings for the fall.

In an interview on Spectrum News NY1, the chancellor referred to potential state budget cuts when pressed on the issue of tuition hikes. “We realize the socioeconomic situation that our students are facing,” he said before citing emergency funding and other measures CUNY has taken to cushion the financial fall of many of its students. “We’re also aware that the state and the city might be facing tough budgeting times. So, no decision has been made about tuition for next year. We’re all, for example, lobbying very, very hard for the federal government to do its part.”

The CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion law meant to address the economic effect of COVID-19, offers CUNY tens of millions of dollars, at least half of which are to be used toward emergency grants for students. However, the CARES Act may not be enough, especially given the financial hit New York State has taken. As the state is CUNY’s primary source of funding, the federal government could support the public university by funding the state. Opposed to new taxes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last month that unless the federal government sends aid, the state will take a severe financial blow.

Meanwhile, some state legislators believe that defunding CUNY is not the only option, even with the pandemic. New York State assemblymembers Robert Carroll and Yuh-Line Niou are just two who’ve expressed their desire for the state to raise taxes in light of proposed budget cuts. Several of their colleagues agree.

New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes recently wrote a letter to the CUNY board of trustees imploring that it freeze tuition. “At this time of economic disaster for so many, I know that students’ lives have become immeasurably harder,” Gounardes wrote. “This is not the time to saddle students with another tuition hike.” A slightly more prominent figure, U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also weighed in. The congresswoman, who represents areas of Queens and the Bronx, wrote in a statement to CUNY’s labor union on the occasion of adjunct professor layoffs, “I strongly condemn the decision of CUNY management to institute massive budget cuts on the backs of working New Yorkers.” 

The larger issue of freezing tuition

By imposing the health and wellness fee in December, CUNY circumvented a state law that says tuition can increase by a maximum of $300 each year.

The purpose of that 2011 legislation was to “[replace] decades of unpredictable and sudden tuition hikes, allowing students and parents to better plan for college expenses,” according to a state press release. The legislation was renewed in 2017.

Yet some don’t believe tuition should increase at all, at least not for now. One bill currently under consideration in the New York State Senate would freeze tuition at CUNY and SUNY for four years in an attempt to buy time while public university boards study potential funding sources.

That bill, New York State Senate Bill S7615A, would expand the Tuition Assistance Program, an aid program for New York State residents who are college students, with the goal of decreasing and eventually eliminating the “TAP gap,” the difference between the maximum TAP aid a student is able to get and the actual cost of tuition at public university. Per state law, public universities are effectively required to allow a student who receives the maximum TAP award not to pay any tuition; therefore, the colleges must pay the difference, which increases yearly as CUNY raises tuition.

“Closing this gap will result in the stabilization of both tuition costs and school services provided by SUNY and CUNY,” reads the bill, “which will positively impact New Yorkers pursing [sic] higher education at public institutions.”

A history of free tuition at CUNY

“I don’t really like to call it an activist scene,” said Isaiah Halley-Segal, president-elect of the Hunter College chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. “I’d like to think it’s just people who are politically active on campus and want more students to be engaged and try to make the school better.”

In recent years, as the ideas of democratic socialism and free public college have gained traction across the nation, they’ve gained popularity at CUNY as well. University activist groups work closely with student government and the university labor union on issues related to funding. Groups such as Free CUNY, CUNY Rising Alliance, CUNY Rank and File Action and college chapters of the YDSA and New York Public Interest Research Group look longingly upon a time when students attended the public university tuition-free.

“I think, first and foremost, that CUNY needs to revert back to being free and fully-funded,” Halley-Segal said. “It needs to be free, fully funded, workers need to be paid well.”

He’s referring to the first 129 years of CUNY, when the university didn’t charge tuition. The policy ended in the seventies, when the city faced a major fiscal crisis in which it nearly had to declare bankruptcy. Back then, CUNY got most of its funding from the city.

Photo courtesy of Free CUNY

In 1975, after both the banks and the federal government had refused to bail the city out, the city ceded control of its finances to a group called the Emergency Financial Control Board, which consisted of city officials, state officials and private industry experts. 

The EFCB put the city on a path toward fiscal responsibility, or what CUNY activists might today call an “austerity regime,” in which it cut CUNY’s budget by tens of millions of dollars. In June of 1976, the equivalent of what is today the board of trustees imposed tuition, and the state took over control of CUNY’s senior colleges.

Halley-Segal also associates the imposition of tuition at CUNY with the somewhat contemporaneous issue of open admissions. “When CUNY was for the white working-class students, it was free, and then the first year that it was majority black and brown students, it became not free,” he said. Though it’s not true that the open admissions policy began the same year as CUNY began charging tuition, his point may have elements of truth. The open admissions policy, in which all New York City high school graduates were guaranteed admission to CUNY, had only begun a few years earlier in 1970. Once the university began charging tuition in the 1976-77 school year, its enrollment numbers decreased sharply for a short period, and though the open admissions policy remained in effect, the cost of tuition seemed to prevent tens of thousands of students from attending. 

Since then, CUNY tuition has increased continuously in spite of efforts from activists like Halley-Segal to freeze and abolish it. At the same time, state funding has decreased as enrollment has increased, from slightly over 200,000 students in fall 1990 to over 270,000 in fall 2019. According to a recent report from New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, per-student state funding for CUNY has effectively dropped 18% in the past decade.

That brings CUNY here, now, when it faces a similar juncture as it did in the seventies. Whether it will follow the same path is still yet to be determined.

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