Opinion: The Capitalist Crusade to Obliterate CUNY

When you first apply to college, counselors advise you to identify your ‘reach schools’ and your ‘safety schools.’ Through college brochures and our parents, it is ingrained in us to value wealthy private universities over public universities. To get accepted at a wealthy school that only accepts a handful is projected as a great personal accomplishment, indicative of one’s unique intelligence and attributes. 

As we know, access to private education depends on one’s access to well-funded K-12 schools, savings and tutoring, which all vary across race and income. Nevertheless, the endowment of private universities thrives on the capitalist fantasy that solely they can provide an exceptional education and determine which students are worthy of it. To sustain this fantasy, private universities have lobbied for decades to keep public universities underfunded and thus incapable of providing a quality education to all students. They have plunged their acceptance rates and inflated tuition costs to define themselves as exclusive institutions based in meritocracy. With each brochure and U.S. News listing, private universities embed in our culture the belief that access to higher education is a privilege rather than a right to be maintained. 

As CUNY adjuncts and professors await another round of layoffs — and tuition hikes remain on the horizon — we must confront how capitalist propaganda propels legislators to neglect funding CUNY.

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During the fiscal crisis of 1976, the federal government refused to provide aid to save New York City from bankruptcy. Eerily reminiscent of the present moment, federal and state legislators decided that the best way to survive the financial crisis was to cut the amount of resources available to working-class, Black and immigrant people. United with the financial community, they pressured the city to end its free-tuition-for-all policy only six years after CUNY opened admissions to all city high school graduates. Open admissions had allowed large numbers of Black and brown students to pursue higher education after decades of exclusion. Nevertheless, the state took control of funding for senior colleges and enacted budget cuts that drew an end to free tuition. 

Since then, as enrollment and the costs of running CUNY have increased, government investment has declined, with more funds being reallocated to the NYPD to lead the war on drugs. Yet, rather than identify the defunding of CUNY as the cause of its weaknesses, elected officials have blamed the institution itself. 

In 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani referred to CUNY as an institution as “adrift.” Educators struggled to meet the needs of all students, particularly those in need of remedial education. Instead of recognizing the need to invest more into remedial programs, Giuliani blamed open admissions policies and the existence of CUNY as a public university. He launched a task force to privatize CUNY and stamp out the open admissions policy at all colleges, claiming that selective admissions would make CUNY into a place where a degree “means something.” His sentiment embodies the propaganda wielded by private universities — that scarcity of resources and systemic exclusion improves value. 

Ultimately, Giuliani did not manage to privatize CUNY, but he made it more exclusive in roundabout ways. He transferred students in need of remedial education to community colleges, requiring senior colleges to evaluate grades and test scores. Instead of increasing funding for community colleges in need, funds went towards launching the Honors College we now know as Macaulay. Macaulay Honors notably prioritizes students from New York City’s most prestigious high schools, which disproportionately reject Black and Hispanic applicants. Consequently, in a CUNY system where white students make up less than 25% of students, they make up 50% of Macaulay Honors, illuminating how selective admissions nearly always produces racist results. 

At the heart of Giuliani’s crusade to obliterate CUNY lies the notion that education is not a resource that the government must provide for all, but a commodity to be earned and bought. While more “progressive” legislators have taken office since, the notion that public education is a privilege still dictates policies and budgeting for CUNY.

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The Excelsior Scholarship, passed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, covers tuition for students from a median family income below $125,000 — provided they meet its conditions. Students must obtain 30 credits per year, effectively barring part-time students from applying. Students must reside and work in New York State for the number of years it took to complete their degree, ensuring that students pay back the city via their residency and labor. 

Any student who fails to meet the conditions of a contract spanning up to four years for an associate degree and eight to ten years for a bachelor’s degree will see their scholarship converted into a loan with interest. Under such exploitative conditions that dictate students’ usage of time and movement, one can argue that tuition is not free. Students are simply paying for it in different ways. Due to its restrictions, the scholarship has rejected two thirds of its applicants. In light of COVID-inspired budget cuts, the state warns that they may accept even fewer students and reduce the amount of aid provided. Instead of ensuring that CUNY and SUNY can serve as many students as possible, the scholarship reinforces the capitalist fantasy of all institutions running like a business — providing service, but only to those who can afford the cost. Despite its failures, state senators James Skoufis and Alessandra Biaggi introduced a bill last year to solidify the scholarship into law. 

The low cost of free tuition for all makes the scholarship obsolete. According to CUNY’s last financial statement in 2019, students paid about 796 million dollars on tuition and fees, after financial aid was applied. The state had a budget of 175 billion dollars in 2019, while the city had a budget of 89 billion dollars. It is not too expensive for the city nor state; but, politicians continue to initiate cuts to programs for CUNY students before cuts in more financially draining sectors.

To make up for the city’s nine billion dollar budget shortfall, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council cut 20 million dollars from CUNY ASAP — a marginal save for the city at a significant detriment to the students the program serves. The program covers the cost of tuition, books and transportation, enabling more ASAP students to graduate on time than students at rivaling programs. While 20 million dollars, amounting to 23% of its initial budget, were cut from CUNY ASAP, 38 million dollars were added to the NYPD’s budget of 6 billion dollars, which balloons to 11 billion when accounting for spending on overtime, debt, settlements and police pensions. As city legislators defund CUNY to fund policing, Cuomo refuses to increase taxes on the wealthy to preserve public services, though New York City has more billionaires than any other city in the world.  

A protester carries a sign that reads "FUND CUNY NOT THE NYPD."
A protester carries a sign that reads “FUND CUNY NOT THE NYPD.” Photo by Afia Eama

As a result of legislators’ negligence, the budget for CUNY remains uncertain, still being decided month by month as Cuomo withholds funds. Whereas NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea has started training for 900 aspiring cops to hire this spring, nearly 3,000 adjuncts were fired last semester, with more layoffs on the horizon. Popular classes that are necessary to complete one’s degree have always been scarce and difficult to claim if one is not an honors student with preferential access. Budget cuts exacerbate this scarcity. The defunding of CUNY and tuition hikes harm students of color the most, who make up nearly 77% of the university’s 275,000 degree-seeking students. First-generation students make up over 44% of CUNY’s student body.

Ultimately, tuition hikes and fundraising will not rescue CUNY from legislators’ neglect and grant us the education we deserve because CUNY was never meant to be a private institution funded by working-class and philanthropic dollars. It was built to be free.

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As we anticipate 2021 elections, in which New Yorkers will choose their next comptroller, mayor and City Council, it is essential to pressure all candidates to prioritize funding CUNY. At least 34 City Council members are guaranteed to leave office in 2021 due to term limits. As of press time, 291 candidates are running, according to a spreadsheet tracking City Council candidates by John Jay student Aaron Fernando and Wellesley student Daniela Finlay. Unfortunately, for most local candidates running for City Council and mayor, education policy ends at K-12. Far too many websites fail to even mention CUNY, nevertheless the need for full investment in CUNY. 

Interestingly, the most (and only) ambitious proposal for CUNY among mayoral candidates comes from Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s chief financial officer. He has pivoted towards funding CUNY as a means to address the current economic crisis. As mayor, he commits to working with the state to make community colleges at CUNY tuition-free. In one aspect, the plan mirrors the exclusive nature of those before it in that it leaves behind over 149,000 students from senior colleges. However, Stringer’s plan diverges from past proposals in that it calls for increased investment in CUNY faculty and provides a pathway for all students to access higher education. While Stringer expresses an adamant hope that students enter the workforce as a result of their education, there is no contractual obligation that they do so. His plan, if passed, would empower students to decide their course selection, their residency and their timeline. 

For  democratic socialist candidates running for City Council, the need for a free CUNY extends beyond the current job crisis; it’s a part of a long-term struggle to eliminate student debt and ensure the state provides higher education as a right. Jaslin Kaur, a notable Hunter College alum running to represent District 23 in Queens, advocates for free tuition at all CUNY colleges and 2-year colleges in New York City. Elisa Crespo, a John Jay College alum running to represent District 15 in the Bronx, offers a New Deal for CUNY, including the restoration of free tuition, expansion of food voucher programs and more investment in mental health counseling. And Shahana Hanif, a Brooklyn College alum running to represent District 39 in Brooklyn, advocates for free tuition as well as guaranteed housing for students experiencing homelessness and more resources to protect immigrant and undocumented students from ICE.

New Yorkers need all elected officials and candidates to view it as their responsibility to invest in CUNY. Higher education sets the foundation for students to pursue careers in medicine, law and teaching. Most elected officials themselves reap the benefits of earning a bachelor’s degree, including Cuomo, the champion of austerity. Ownership of a degree is becoming increasingly tied to one’s ability to make a salary on par with the cost of living, especially in New York City, where average rent costs hover over 3,000 dollars.

 And the ability to learn in itself, whether about politics, science, language or culture, can transform and empower communities. A resource that is foundational to our survival and progress should not be exclusive nor commodified. Contrary to the capitalist fantasy of the private university, everyone is deserving of an exceptional education.

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