Will CUNY move closer to offering free tuition?
New York City and state lawmakers are negotiating budgets, which if approved, would mark the first step in helping the university system drop its costs to students.
The City University of New York looks to be getting some extra financial relief from this year’s New York City and state budgets, which education advocates and lawmakers said was the first step in inching closer to their goal of making tuition free again.
Both Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams proposed increases in funding for CUNY in their preliminary fiscal year 2023 budgets that are being negotiated in the City Council and state Legislature. Hochul’s budget proposal included a $789 million increase compared to last year, while Adams proposed a $47 million increase, according to his preliminary financial plan.
The additional money is part of a political sea change in Albany, at City Hall and on the national level. For years, CUNY students and staff have raised alarms about crumbling facilities, a lack of course options and oversized classes. City and state lawmakers have repeatedly sparred about which budget will cover the funding shortfalls. As public funding for the university system has dwindled over time on a per student basis when accounting for enrollment growth and inflation, students have increasingly picked up the tab. Tuition now covers 20% of the university system’s budget, according to the faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress. While the university system noted that 68% of CUNY students still attend tuition-free, students, staff and advocates have fought for years to return to the tuition-free model that the Free Academy, the predecessor to the City College of New York, was founded on in 1847.
In 2015, a coalition of students, advocacy groups, unions and political organizations formed the CUNY Rising Alliance to push for a New Deal for CUNY, a list of funding demands for the state that would get rid of tuition, allow the university to hire more staff and invest in capital renovations. The Working Families Party, Make the Road New York and the Democratic Socialists of America all backed it.
Last year, the movement was given a boost when the Professional Staff Congress signed on to the effort. State lawmakers also introduced legislation last year, sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Karines Reyes, to provide free tuition to all students, set minimum faculty and counselor staffing levels and boost pay for adjunct professors. This year, Gounardes said Hochul agreed to work toward many of the goals laid out in the bill through the budget process, which has to be completed by the April 1 deadline.
“We are coming out of a period where New York has experienced a decade or more of austerity, and a lot of areas have been cut to the bone,” Gounardes told City & State. “And I think what we’re trying to do in this new era of state leadership is … to put ourselves on a path toward restoring everything that was lost and then some.”
Gounardes and Reyes were among many state and city leaders behind the effort who attended a CUNY school. City Council Member Justin Brannan, who sponsored a nonbinding resolution echoing the demands made by CUNY Rising Alliance, attended the College of Staten Island.
As state budget negotiations have heated up, CUNY Rising Alliance has hosted dozens of protests, including a march attended by hundreds of people on the Brooklyn Bridge earlier this month. While serving as Brooklyn borough president, Adams marched in 2020 to advocate for more public funding to offset the cost of CUNY tuition.
Hochul’s budget included a total of $8.1 billion for higher education, an 8.3% increase compared to the fiscal year 2022 budget.
Overall, Hochul proposed an overall budget of $1.6 billion for CUNY senior colleges, a $170 million increase. She budgeted $89 million more for SUNY and CUNY debt service, and an additional $8 million for community colleges.
Hochul’s budget also included several new investments, such as $150 million to expand the Tuition Assistance Program to cover an estimated 75,000 additional students who are enrolled in six or more credits at SUNY, CUNY or any independent, nonprofit college. The existing program typically only covers full-time students. The preliminary budget also included a new $53 million allocation to hire 540 full-time faculty at CUNY, $48 million for fringe benefits and $4.8 million for child care centers at the eight CUNY campuses that currently lack one.
A CUNY spokesperson lauded Hochul’s proposed funding increases, and said in a statement: “It is notable that Governor Hochul’s first executive budget adds millions for our University including an increase to hire more faculty, an increase in financial aid to support more students, including those going part-time and increased funding for opportunity programs that help the students with greatest need.”
The Assembly and state Senate’s counterproposals took Hochul’s spending increases a step further, including a $200 million uptick in operating support funds for CUNY, an additional $35 million for new full-time faculty and extra $60 million for base aid to CUNY community colleges.
The Assembly also wanted to require a five-year capital plan for CUNY as part of the executive budget and increase funding for community colleges by $60 million, according to a summary of its one-house budget proposal.
Notably, Hochul’s budget included just $1 million for mental health services at CUNY. The Assembly proposed an additional $28.8 million on top of that.
“There really isn’t a substitute for having an actual vibrant, funded, well-staffed mental health practice on campus,” Professional Staff Congress President James Davis told City & State. “We have these offices on our campuses and they’ve just been depleted of full-time staff.”
The state Senate’s budget proposal would increase funding for CUNY by $500 million, including $153 million for new full-time faculty and $59.6 million to to “fully close the TAP gap,” which refers to the difference between Tuition Assistance Program awards and actual tuition price for students, something the staff union has been raising alarms about for years. “The gap between what the state pays for TAP at SUNY and CUNY and the actual cost of tuition at SUNY and CUNY has left colleges grappling with a $139 million total shortfall in funding statewide ($65 million for SUNY and $74 million for CUNY),” the union wrote in 2019. “As this gap has grown – and continues to grow – students are feeling that loss in funding in their classrooms and counseling centers.”
Adams proposed a baseline $981.3 million fiscal year 2023 budget at CUNY, a $53 million increase over last year. But CUNY is not immune from Adams’ plans to cut spending at most city agencies by 3%. When accounting for the proposed $14.6 million in cuts, along with $5 million in expenditure increases, the final CUNY budget would be $971.7 million in fiscal year 2023, a $46.8 million increase.
“There is nothing efficient about undermining CUNY when the communities served by CUNY are in such great need. I believe we must double down on our investments to CUNY to fuel our economic recovery. (We) can’t cut our way to prosperity. Recovery requires real investment,” Brannan wrote in an email to City & State.
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