How COVID-19 is inspiring new visions for higher education

Advocates say bold plans could help New York recover from the pandemic while addressing inequities.

The SUNY administration building in Albany.

The SUNY administration building in Albany. felix lipov/Shutterstock

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is hardly the only political player who is leaning on 20th century references to present his vision for a post-pandemic future in New York. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi is pushing for a state-level “Marshall Plan for Moms” while environmental activists say a Green New Deal matters more than ever. Higher education advocates even say the time is coming for students to get their own versions of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and G.I. Bill.

Higher education advocates warned at a Feb. 4 state budget hearing that proposed cuts to public and private colleges could jeopardize the state’s pandemic recovery while worsening racial and economic inequities.

“History shows us that at times of crisis governments must not be timid in their response,” Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress that represents CUNY faculty and staff members, said in testimony submitted to state lawmakers. “The current crisis, like the Great Depression, demands visionary solutions, not defensive austerity.”

Cuomo’s proposed budget includes a $46 million reduction in general operating support to SUNY, $26 million less for CUNY as well as tuition hikes for students at both public university systems. While some programs helping lower-income students are not facing cuts, the governor is proposing to eliminate a 50-year-old program known as “Bundy Aid” that is the only source of operating aid for more than 100 private, nonprofit colleges across the state.

State lawmakers, students, staff and faculty have a different vision for higher education this budget season. A proposed “New Deal for CUNY” aims to eliminate tuition, increase mental health and academic counseling, hire more faculty and expand public college campuses, according to activists. State Sen. Andrew Gounardes of Brooklyn and Assembly Member Karines Reyes of the Bronx plan to release details at a press conference scheduled for Friday. Advocates are also pushing for state lawmakers to increase funding for higher education while changing a longtime problem with the Tuition Assistance Program that helps students pay tuition. “Establishing a full TAP award equal to SUNY tuition would benefit individual students by bringing an end to the campus penalty – campuses losing desperately needed tuition revenue for each TAP-eligible student they admit,” Frederick Kowal of United University Professions, which represents faculty and staff at SUNY, said in his submitted testimony.

Advocates say that increased investments in higher education could turbocharge the state’s recovery from the pandemic, which has given them new moral arguments as well. Kowal told legislators that public employees like transit drivers, sanitation workers and health care workers deserve a free SUNY education just like WWII veterans got through the G.I. Bill of Rights, an idea already being pursued in Michigan. Students representatives told state lawmakers that the racial inequities exacerbated by the pandemic could be partially addressed by expanding the Excelsior Scholarship program to cover additional types of expenses. “Housing, food, transportation, textbooks, equipment, fees, and other items are all financial stresses of students,” SUNY Student Assembly President President Bradley Hershenson said in his testimony. More funding to help students with disabilities could likewise bridge the digital divide that was widened by the pandemic, according to the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities.

Advocates say they support Cuomo’s efforts to secure $15 billion in new federal funding to help the state overcome a historical drop in state revenues, but they also want to increase taxes on high-earners, capital gains, stock transfers and corporations to fund their plans for higher education. Cuomo has resisted such efforts while he pushed for more federal funding by arguing that increasing taxes could hurt the state’s bottom line by driving wealthy people out of the state, as a litany of financial institutions have recently threatened to do. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have expressed support for raising taxes on the wealthy to some extent, but the details on which taxes they are ultimately looking to pass will only become known after these budget hearings conclude and each chamber unveils their one-house budget resolutions that set the stage for the final negotiations with the governor before the April 1 state budget deadline.

Advocates see history as a key ally in arguing that the pandemic presents as many opportunities as setbacks for higher education, if only elected leaders could be as bold as their predecessors. “Governors Roosevelt, Lehman, Rockefeller, and Paterson all supported tax hikes on the wealthy when the state faced great economic peril to protect or lesson cuts to critical public services,” Bowen said Thursday. “We urge you to take a stand as courageous as that of the original New Deal reformers.”