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For Tuition Aid Boost to be Meaningful, CUNY Needs New Investment


 brooklyn120816

James Davis, the author (photo: Dave Sanders)


There has never been a better moment for the state Legislature to fight for investment in quality, affordable public higher education. Governor Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship, though flawed, has reaffirmed the value of CUNY and SUNY and made “free tuition” for many a realistic policy goal.

But, CUNY needs a substantial increase in state funding to ensure the quality of the education that it currently provides, and far more than that to provide free, quality education to its entire student body, which is likely to continue to grow significantly.

As undergraduate enrollment has steadily increased at CUNY, state funding has not kept pace. This has meant fewer faculty teaching more students – leading to less student contact with full-time faculty members and more students who cannot enroll in the already-full classes they need to graduate.

I teach at Brooklyn College, where over the past five years, fewer than half the undergraduate courses were taught by full-time faculty. Sadly, this is higher than the average across CUNY’s eight senior colleges. Our students need more contact with full-time professors, not less.

In addition to teaching and conducting research, we provide academic and career advisement and guide students toward extra-curricular opportunities and internships. Despite the high quality of many of our adjunct faculty, they cannot mentor students in these ways, and CUNY’s overreliance on a vast, underpaid, contingent workforce shortchanges our students. Increased state funding would pay for more full-time professors to meet our students’ needs and support better pay and teaching conditions for adjunct faculty.

CUNY faculty consistently rise to the occasion, absorbing the impact of defunding by taking more and more students into our classes. Student requests for “overtallies” into classes that exceed the enrollment limit, demands from administrators to offer “jumbo” size courses, trips down a hallway to borrow chairs from a neighboring classroom – these are regular occurrences at Brooklyn College.

“Students essentially have to beg multiple faculty members to enter a class,” remarked one of my colleagues, “often after the first, second, or even third session.” “Rather than stuffing more bodies into an already crowded room,” she noted, “more funding would allow for reasonable class sizes and give students access to the education they deserve.”

The chair of one department mentioned that despite adding three students to every professor’s roster above the enrollment cap in their general education courses, at least 20 additional students per semester are denied “overtally” requests.

The problem creates a backlog to degree progress. Students often have urgent reasons to take these courses – to graduate on time or to maintain financial aid eligibility. But it is impossible to let everyone in.

CUNY faculty care deeply about our students’ educational progress and classroom experience. As professors acquire more students, the incentive is to assign less work – fewer or shorter papers, fewer exams or assessments that are standardized for quick turnaround – but that is not in the students’ interest, and faculty absorb the brunt of the impact of defunding. Professors are not averse to staying up later at night to read the extra papers or write the necessary comments, but there are diminishing returns for everyone. Overtallies are a perhaps less visible or even ‘backdoor’ method of increasing class sizes, one that cheats our students and further squeezes underpaid instructors.

As state legislators weigh the merits of Governor Cuomo’s proposed Excelsior Scholarship, equal consideration should be given to educational quality as to access, and a substantial, long-overdue investment should be made in the City University.

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James Davis, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Brooklyn College and Brooklyn College Chapter Chair of the Professional Staff Congress.

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