Council Member Inez Barron (photo: Ben Brachfeld)
A long-awaited report was released on Thursday by the Task Force on Affordability, Admissions, and Graduation Rates at the City University of New York -- convened through City Council legislation -- that included recommendations for broad changes to the operations and funding of CUNY. Most notably, the task force, consisting of students, faculty, advocates, government officials, members of the business community, and one member of the CUNY Board of Trustees, recommended that tuition charges be eliminated at the city public university system.
The report was commissioned by an act of the City Council in November 2016, introduced and championed by Brooklyn Council Member Inez Barron, a Hunter College graduate who says she wouldn’t be able to attend college and become a member of the New York City Council had she not attended during a period when tuition to CUNY was largely free.
The task force, consisting of members appointed by the mayor, City Council speaker, and public advocate, was expected to produce a report within a year outlining recommendations for improving the status of CUNY, and examining policy solutions including free tuition. The Task Force was co-chaired by Stephen Brier, a professor in urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Hercules Reid, a student at the New York Institute of Technology and former vice chair for legislative affairs for the CUNY University Student Senate.
The report was released just ahead of a Council hearing on its recommendations, chaired by Barron, who leads the Council’s Committee on Higher Education. The day was not without tension, as Barron said the de Blasio administration had delayed the release of the report for several months.
- The report outlines 21 recommendations for improving CUNY. First and foremost is the aforementioned free tuition, to be funded by increased subsidy from the state and city, which both currently help fund the university system. Recommendations also include:
- Hire significantly more full time faculty, reversing a decades-long trend of faculty hemorrhaging in favor of adjuncts;
- Create an emergency fund to meet pressing needs of low-income students such as rent and food;
- Hire, through CUNY and the city Department of Education, full-time guidance counselors to help students with the transition between high school and college;
- Expand much-heralded Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP);
- Eliminate yearly credit requirements for the state-run Excelsior Scholarship;
- Provide free MetroCards to all CUNY students;
- Double pay for adjuncts, to around $7,000 per course;
- Increase CUNY capital funding, to address infrastructure-related issues.
Barron said on Thursday that the report was finished in December, but that the de Blasio administration requested an indefinite extension so that it could review the report and announce its findings together with the task force. Barron said she complied, but on Thursday she said that she had not heard anything from the mayor’s office since December.
“Well, here it is, six months later, and there has been nothing different done in terms of what this report said at its completion in December,” Barron said at a rally outside City Hall prior to the hearing. The rally was also attended by members of the task force, CUNY students, and advocates, but no other City Council members; Barron said that this was due to prior commitments rather than a lack of support for eliminating tuition at CUNY, and that several Council members had reaffirmed their support to her.
“We’re very displeased,” she continued. “I think that was very disingenuous of the mayor to do that, and I think that we need to make sure that we let him know we are committed to CUNY improving, having better access, being affordable -- of course my position is that it should be free.”
Speaking with Gotham Gazette, Barron said that the administration was not being forthcoming as to why it had stalled, beyond the extension request in December.
“They’re not involved in supporting us at this point,” she said. “They haven’t given any reasons that relate to this document, but we do want to make sure that we go forward and that we don’t let them deter us.”
In response to allegations about stalling the report, the de Blasio administration touted an increase in city funding for CUNY under his watch.
“The Mayor believes that CUNY should be affordable, and we continue to invest to help make that happen despite not having control over the system,” said Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for the mayor. “In fact, the City will contribute nearly $255 million annually by 2021. We will continue to work with the City Council and State to provide high-quality, affordable education at CUNY.”
According to the task force report, CUNY was largely free for much of its existence. Founded in 1847 as “The Free Academy,” qualifying students from New York City schools were given a free education. In 1969, CUNY switched to free open enrollment for any New York City public high school student. This significantly increased both the matriculated student population and the diversity of the student body. The 1970-71 term, the first with open admissions, saw a 75 percent increase in the matriculated student body over the 1969-70 term. In 1969, 78 percent of freshmen entering CUNY were white; by 1975, after five years of open enrollment, this number dropped to 30 percent, according to the task force report.
But in the midst of New York City’s fiscal crisis, the report says, that nearly led it to bankruptcy, the city handed over control of CUNY’s operating budget to the state, which promptly started charging tuition across the board for the first time in CUNY’s history. With tuition instated, the state could begin diminishing its subsidy and forcing CUNY to rely on student tuition for an increasing portion of its operating budget. The task force report released Thursday included a chart demonstrating this trend: in the 1990-91 school year, student tuition accounted for 21 percent of CUNY’s operating revenue; in 2014-15, that number had risen sharply, to 46 percent. In the same time frame, state funding fell from 74 percent to 53 percent, and city funding fell from 5 percent to 1 percent.
Cuomo, who in 2016 launched an investigation into CUNY over administrative misuse of funds, has resisted shifting costs from students to the state. The fiscal year 2019 enacted state budget, in effect beginning April 1 of this year, increases state funding for CUNY over last year by approximately $50 million; the increase in state funding this year for SUNY and CUNY was touted by Cuomo in the wake of the budget’s passage. Regardless, the state’s $1.9 billion funding comprises 52 percent of CUNY’s $3.6 billion total operating budget, about equal to the 2014-15 percentage.
As it stands, tuition at CUNY, where half a million students pursue either undergraduate or graduate degrees, is $6,530 per year at senior colleges and $4,800 per year at community colleges (for in-state students; out-of-state students pay much more). In the 2008-09 school year, tuition at senior colleges was $4,000 and at community colleges was $2,800. There has been a 63 percent and 71 percent jump, respectively, in ten years.
Even these somewhat modest tuition costs are unaffordable for many students, but large numbers pay tuition with state and federal aid through TAP, Pell Grants, and student loans. The maximum TAP award in 2017-18 was $5,165, while for Pell Grants the maximum award was $5,920. According to David Crook, CUNY’s Associate Dean of Student Affairs, 61 percent of CUNY senior college students attend school for free, and 71 percent of community college students do the same, vis a vis a mixture of TAP and Pell grant benefits. Crook was the only CUNY official to testify at the City Council hearing; he said his colleagues were overseeing graduations on Thursday, otherwise they would have come.
For those who qualify, the Excelsior Scholarship can fill in what’s unaccounted for. Excelsior, a Cuomo program passed in 2017 with the blessing of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, was the object of ire among speakers at the rally and the hearing.
“I want to thank [Inez Barron] for figuring out how to actually give us free CUNY,” said Samitha, a CUNY student and student leader at the New York Public Interest Research Group, at the rally. “Not watered down policies like Excelsior, which 99 percent of CUNY students don’t even qualify for.”
The report claims that “only about 2,000 of CUNY’s 240,000 undergraduates qualified for” the Excelsior Scholarship, which would put the number of students in the CUNY system who qualify for Excelsior at around 1 percent. At the hearing, Crook claimed that the number of qualifying students was actually closer to 4,700, though the total number of undergraduates attending CUNY has also risen to 275,000.
Excelsior kicks in after a student’s TAP and Pell Grant benefits have been exhausted, and comes with requirements that have been criticized as exclusionary for low-income students. To qualify, New York State students from households earning less than the income threshold ($100,000 the first year, $110,000 this year, and $125,000 next year and beyond) must take 30 credits per year and be on track to graduate in two years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s degree. This can exclude part-time students, many low-income, who cannot attend school full-time or consecutively, potentially due to work or family commitments. The task force’s recommendations include an elimination of the credit requirements for Excelsior.
The governor’s office, in a statement, disputed the notion that Excelsior doesn't help low-income students.
"New York leads the nation in creating equal opportunity for all, no matter one’s background or family fortune,” said Tyrone Stevens, a spokesperson for the governor. “Governor Cuomo’s first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is helping students receive a tuition-free education that taps their potential and prepares them for the 21st century economy. It’s a critical investment in future of New York, and we’re proud of the progress this program has already delivered.”
For students pursuing an associate’s degree, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) provides tuition waivers as well as career and financial advisory, free Metrocards and textbooks, and generalized advisory services. ASAP has been a success, increasing graduation rates for students pursuing associate’s degrees: an analysis found that 52.5 percent of ASAP students completed their degrees within three years, versus 26.8 percent of a control group. It has garnered praise from former President Barack Obama, among others; the report recommends it be made available at all campuses.
But even for students who don’t pay a dime of tuition out of pocket, the costs can add up. The cost of rent, food, transportation, and textbooks alone can add up to several thousands of dollars per year. Barron said that, at a recent budget hearing, a CUNY student named Levi testified that he had not eaten for two days so that he could afford a Metrocard to go to class. The problem of food insecurity among college students is widespread: a recent study from Temple University found that 36 percent of students surveyed had been food insecure in the past year, and that this number was likely low due to stigma attached to student poverty.
According to data presented by Crook, 42 percent of CUNY students come from families with household incomes below $20,000, and 58 percent receive Pell Grants, a federal grant for low-income students.
The task force report, in turn, recommends that CUNY provide free Metrocards to all CUNY students, and that CUNY establish a $5 million “emergency fund” to “help respond to its students’ immediate financial problems and emergencies (e.g. rent payments, medical expenses, food and book purchases) that prevent students’ from completing their university studies.”
The report also recommends that CUNY increase full-time faculty significantly, and rely less on adjuncts. Brier reported that CUNY has lost about 3,000 full-time faculty members since the 1970s, and that almost all of these positions had been replaced by adjuncts, who are paid meager amounts of money and often have to teach several classes just to scrape by. Adjuncts currently make up one-in-two faculty members at CUNY; they are paid between $3,000 and $3,500 per course, which the report recommends be doubled to $7,000 per course.
City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, a former CUNY adjunct, noted that the meager pay and lack of benefits, leading to adjuncts taking several positions at different institutions, causes professors to be absent for their students in terms of office hours and other assistive functions, such as advising on theses and writing letters of recommendation.
“All of these different things are not calculated into the time that it takes for an adjunct to effectively teach a course,” Cumbo said.
A critical factor missing from the report concerns costs. Free tuition, not to mention the other recommendations, would cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, and there is no question that the city, state, and federal governments would fight over who has to pony up. Brier, questioned by Council Member Bob Holden, noted that free tuition would cover what isn’t already covered by the city, state, and federal governments in funding; in 2016, this number, amounting to the out-of-pocket tuition paid by students, amounted to $784 million annually to pay for free tuition. In an email to Gotham Gazette, Brier said that number is likely higher today.
“It hasn’t been costed out and the number is likely higher because of the increase in undergrad numbers,” Brier said. “This is work we hoped would be done following the report. We didn’t have the staff or time to do that work, which is much needed.” Reid, the co-chair of the task force, had earlier said that the de Blasio administration finally contacted the task force on Wednesday, the day before the hearing, and shared feedback.
Because the administration was not involved in the release of the report and the funding numbers and mechanisms are not clear, the report has not technically been completed, though the task force says it has reached the end of the work. In effect, it’s more of a framework of recommendations than it is a detailed policy document. The report had “draft” written on the front and contains a “confidential” watermark on each page, despite being made publicly available at the City Council on Thursday.