After decades of student and faculty protests against budget cuts and tuition hikes at New York’s public university system, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for tuition-free college may signal that the politicians in Albany have finally gotten the message. Or have they?
Cuomo, standing alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, held a press conference recently at LaGuardia Community College where he announced his plan for a scholarship that would cover the full cost of tuition left after state and federal funding for individual students is exhausted. The Excelsior Scholarship would be open to students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year and could help an estimated 940,000 families in New York state.
If Cuomo’s proposal makes it out of the political gridlock in Albany — which would be a miracle in itself — it would be phased in over a three-year period, with the first students to benefit receiving aid as soon as the fall semester of 2017.
But there seems to be less than meets the eye to Cuomo’s initiative.
Although the government has yet to release all of the details, it has quickly become evident that nearly half of all students enrolled at the very community college where he held his press conference wouldn’t qualify for the scholarship.
According to an article in the Gotham Gazette, part-time students and undocumented students won’t have access to the tuition-free program. This means that around 84,000 part-time students, accounting for 34.2 percent of all City University of New York (CUNY) students, would be excluded. Around 8,300 undocumented students, amounting to about 4 percent of the CUNY student population, would also be cut out.
Other articles have pointed out that the Excelsior Scholarship wouldn’t do much for low-income first-year students, whose tuition is usually already covered by the Federal Pell Grant and New York State Tuition Assistance Programs. However, with the new Trump administration taking power, federal funding for Pell Grants could face cuts, possibly drastic ones.
Another question is who will pay for the scholarship? Cuomo and the rest of the state political establishment have spoken against raising taxes on the rich.
But looming over this whole discussion is the effect of austerity and privatization on the CUNY system and the associated State University of New York (SUNY) system. The problems of public higher education in New York go beyond the very important issue of the cost of tuition — and student and faculty life has been affected in a myriad of ways.
The CUNY system, the largest urban public education system in the country, has its roots in struggles over access to universal education.
As the authors of From Free Academy to CUNY write, the idea of universal higher education came about through “the emergence of an organized labor movement in New York City, struggles among political factions and sectarian controversies over school funding.”
In the period before CUNY’s predecessor, the Free Academy, opened its doors in 1849, Townsend Harris, then-president of the newly formed Board of Education and advocate for universal access to higher education, spoke of the Free Academy as an institution that would “open the doors to all,” where the “children of the rich and the poor [would] take their seats together, and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.”
In the century and a half since the Free Academy was established, it was renamed CUNY and expanded to include more than 20 institutions of higher education, including senior colleges that grant bachelor’s degrees, community colleges that offer two-year associate’s degrees, and a graduate center located near the heart of Manhattan.
It was only in the mid-1970s, during a fiscal crisis in New York City, that CUNY was pressured by the city’s business elite to institute tuition. In the decades that have followed, CUNY has been in a state of perpetual crisis due to underfunding by the state government. Tuition hikes have continued in defiance of intermittent protest efforts to stop them.
CUNY’s problems now manifest themselves in a number of different ways, including continued underfunding and lack of wage parity for faculty — all to the detriment of those seeking an excellent higher education.
In May, a New York Times article, headlined “Dreams stall as city’s engine of mobility sputters,” looked at the toll of 40 years of neoliberal attacks on the CUNY system. Academic departments are starved, students and faculty fight with overpaid administrators against budget cuts, and wage stagnation and tuition hikes are rampant.
Faculty have not had a wage increase in six years, and, the article points out:
[t]he share of CUNY’s $3.2 billion budget that comes from tuition has climbed to 45 percent from 20 percent in 1989. In the last five years, tuition at its four-year colleges has risen by $300 per year, to $6,330 for New York state residents. Undergraduates must also pay an extra $280 a year, at least, in fees. It is a daunting burden to students, more than half of whom report family incomes below $30,000, according to school data.
If Cuomo’s proposal is enacted, Excelsior Scholarship recipients in New York City would become familiar with the system’s many problems. Crumbling campuses is one — water collecting in buckets in classrooms and hallways whenever it rains is a common sight on many CUNY campuses.
They’ll sit in overcrowded classrooms and try to avoid the rats and roaches students see as they walk through campus. Students frustrated with the spotty wifi and outdated labs will also face an administration that has cut funds for student clubs and activities.
They’ll struggle to find political groups or an active student body because CUNY administrators have gone to considerable effort to repress student protests, co-opt student activists and bureaucratize student services departments to frustrate and discourage those who seek to organize the student body for political and cultural efforts. Recently, CUNY administrators considered instituting “free speech zones” that would have set restrictions on demonstrations.
Excelsior recipients will realize that many of their professors are overworked part-time adjuncts who are treated as second-class employees. As the CUNY Adjunct Project detailed in a report released before the 2015 National Adjunct Walkout Day, CUNY adjuncts “comprise 59 percent of the CUNY faculty staff, but earn only 29-38 percent of what full-time faculty earn.”
Adjuncts earn only $3,275 per class and are paid only for their time in the classroom, and not for curriculum preparation, grading or student advisement. As a result, some adjunct professors are forced to seek public assistance.
Some new CUNY students who graduated from the New York City public school system will learn that they have to spend numerous semesters, if not years, on remedial courses that only community colleges offer — betraying the gains of students who struggled for an open admissions policy at CUNY.
The rolling back of remedial courses at senior colleges is one major reason why there is growing racial segregation between CUNY community and senior colleges — but other factors include raising minimum SAT score requirements at CUNY’s top senior colleges and a greater reliance on transfer students who aren’t from the community colleges.
As a report by the non-profit organization Community Service Society illustrated, enrollment rates for Black and Latinx students have dropped significantly compared to rates in the early 2000s. This, despite the fact that there now exists a larger pool of college enrollment-ready Black and Latinx graduates from NYC public schools.
The combination of defunding, rising tuition costs, the rolling back of remedial courses at senior colleges and bureaucratization of student services means that the average time it takes for CUNY students to graduate goes well beyond the four year expectation, if they graduate at all.
The Excelsior scholarship might be a step in the right direction, but it is far from the inclusive, social-democratic vision of universal education that Bernie Sanders talked about during his presidential primary campaign last year. Nor does it make inroads toward the Student Bill of Rights put forward by the broad coalition of forces that make up the CUNY Rising Alliance.
Students and faculty need to continue to pressure politicians to go further than an exclusive scholarship — and, along the way, build solidarity with each other and fight for students’ needs beyond just tuition costs. They must also build relationships with the rest of the educational system in New York City and the state.
Although Cuomo continues to tack left on some issues, his proposal comes out of political shrewdness rather than left-wing conviction. This is par for the course for Cuomo, who also announced a large number of commutations and pardons at the end of 2016, including the headline-grabbing commutation for former Weather Underground and Black Liberation Army radical Judith Clark.
Meanwhile, less reported was Cuomo’s New Year’s Eve vetoes of several important reform measures backed by unions, civil liberties organizations and other progressive forces.
These included the veto of a bill pushed by a coalition of health care unions that would have redistributed some federal funding to hospitals that serve the poor and another of legislation long fought for by criminal defense and civil liberties organizations to counter racial and other disparities in in the justice system by making the state responsible for funding indigent criminal defense. Cuomo also vetoed a bill to revise New York state’s outrageous gravity knife law that has seen thousands of mostly minorities prosecuted for possession of legally sold folding knives.
Many left-wing forces have been fighting for these reforms for years, working to get them passed in both the Democratic Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate, only to be thwarted with a swipe of Cuomo’s pen.
In this context, Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship is far less than we deserve — and understanding his motives is crucial to understanding that our struggle for universal education must be built independently of the Democratic Party politicians who would attempt to cynically capitalize on it.