‘I Will Have to Drop Out’: Students Protest Proposed Tuition Increase

Students voiced opposition this week to a proposed $320 per-year increase in the price of attending a CUNY school. On Monday, the University Student Senate released testimony it collected from several hundred students, faculty and alumni imploring the board of trustees to vote against the tuition increase. Then, on Saturday, students protested in Brooklyn in the pouring rain arguing that funding for the police should be redirected to public education.

Students and other CUNY community members march across Brooklyn Bridge. Photo courtesy of University Student Senate

In their letters, hundreds of students explained how they’d be affected by the $200 increase in the cost of tuition and a $120 health and wellness fee that the board of trustees approved in December and will vote on again later this summer. Many students wrote that their families have experienced layoffs because of COVID-19, making it more difficult for them to pay their expenses. 

Several students wrote that the $320 figure would come out of their budgets for food, or that they might have to drop out of school. If the tuition increase passes, “I will have to make the decision between focusing on school or working longer hours,” wrote Hunter College student Lizi Zhong. “If there will be an increase in tuition, I will have to drop out of school,” wrote York College student Winie Chery. The word “unfair” appears 100 times in the 500-page document.

Another common point made by students and professors alike was that the quality of education has suffered under distance learning, and that therefore, students shouldn’t have to pay more in tuition. “I have had to switch to distance learning, which I have never done before and with which I am still struggling,” wrote Borough of Manhattan Community College professor Jaime Weida. “My teaching experience and, consequently, my students’ learning experience is being negatively affected.” CUNY has not yet announced whether it will hold in-person classes this fall. 

USS collected this testimony in anticipation of a June board of trustees vote to finalize the tuition increase. Usually, the city and state, which fund CUNY, finalize their budgets by June, but this year, because of the coronavirus, the city and state are yet to do so. The trustees’ vote on tuition will therefore likely take place later in the summer. Like other departments, the already-suffering university system is expecting a severe cut to its budget allocation because of the financial fallout from the pandemic.

[Read more: COVID-19 and the Struggle Over CUNY Tuition]

Some students believe that the city can find more money to spend on CUNY community colleges, which unlike senior colleges get most of their funding from the city, if they cut the budget for the police department. As they marched from Brooklyn Borough Hall to City Hall, students carried signs that said “Fund CUNY, not cops,” alluding to a movement to defund the police that has gained traction across the nation in light of recent Black Lives Matter activism. 

A number of proposals, including one that would reduce the department’s budget by $1 billion, seek to cut funding for the NYPD, and USS hopes to freeze community college tuition with $16 million of that money. USS is also asking for $20 million to fund ASAP, a program that provides financial and academic support to community college students and that’s on the mayor’s chopping block, according to NYC Councilmember Helen Rosenthal. “We could always ask for more,” said USS Legislative Director Smitha Varghese over email, “but other issues that make up NYC need fixing and funding as well like NYCHA, public housing, homelessness, mental health, and so much more; $1 billion can only go so far.”

The protestors were joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, among other local leaders. “I want to make something very clear. There is no… institution that is more important than CUNY in the entire city if not the United States of America,” said Brewer. “And I don’t just say that here. I say that everywhere I go.” 

Organized by USS and activist groups, the protest also emphasized the shared ideals of public education and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Why is it that [CUNY leaders] think it’s OK to put the pressure and the burden on black and brown students?” said CUNY Rising Alliance coordinator Jamell Henderson, referring to the proposed tuition increase. Shortly afterward, protestors began chanting “The people united will never be defeated.” Meanwhile, rain kept falling.

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