(photo: CUNY Office of Communications)
New Yorkers should be proud that the City University of New York leads the nation in offering low-income students the opportunity to enter the middle class. CUNY is a powerful engine of social mobility.
But that engine is at risk of breaking down unless our elected officials change course. Years of systemic underinvestment in educational opportunities for students of color – starting well before they reach university - means that students are increasingly unprepared for the global economy at the same time that their professors are stretched incredibly thin trying to make ends meet.
My wife and I are both adjuncts – like the majority of professors who are teaching CUNY students - at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. We each make about $3,500 a course, the average wage for adjuncts at CUNY. When you factor in time for grading, student conferences, and planning, this compensation comes to not much more than minimum wage.
We now have an 8-month old daughter and despite reducing our household expenses to the bare necessities and taking on side gigs (like driving for Uber), our total debt just keeps growing. We can’t afford childcare that is available at the college we teach at and so we are presently applying for subsidized childcare elsewhere. I am sharing these intimate details because these are the kinds of circumstances CUNY adjuncts are grappling with all around this expensive city.
My wife and I – and all the other adjuncts we know – love teaching. We want to be there for our John Jay students, the next generation of police officers, emergency personnel, and legal professionals who will go on to provide public safety, justice, and aid for our beloved City.
I routinely meet adjunct professors who are juggling four, five, and six courses not simply because they love teaching, but because they are trying to combine the wages of a number of low-paid courses in order to pay the rent. But others I speak to have given up and are leaving the college teaching profession at the first better-paid alternative.
Other universities manage to pay their professors – both full-time and adjunct – a decent wage. But not CUNY.
Adjuncts at the University of Connecticut start at $4,700 per course. At Rutgers in New Jersey the starting pay for an adjunct is $5,200, while at Penn State it is $6,100. Nearby private colleges pay adjuncts even more. At Fordham, they start at $7,000. At Barnard they will soon earn $10,000 per course.
Our full-time CUNY colleagues are underpaid as well, with average salaries well below peer institutions like Pace, the University of Connecticut and Rutgers.
All of this means that it’s harder to attract good teachers – right as CUNY is desperately trying to improve the faculty diversity at the University. And it means that teachers have less time to spend on their students – as they’re pushed to take on side jobs to make ends meet.
Per-student state support for CUNY’s senior colleges has decreased 18% over the last 10 years when you adjust for inflation. In that time, tuition has skyrocketed.
It would not take billions to make real change: $350 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the billions in subsidies our elected officials are prepared to offer Amazon, would ensure that CUNY remains accessible while continuing to reduce inequality and fight poverty.
CUNY and its graduates have given so much to New York City. But if politicians continue to starve public higher education and the people who make it work, the CUNY economic miracle will not be there for future generations.
Sami Disu is an adjunct professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.