Arriving in America at the age of 13 from Macau, Benny Lee knew that education was the best chance he would have for a bright future in his newly adopted country. He studied hard and finished in the top 20 of his class in a high school in Jamaica, Queens.
But when it was time for college, his options were limited because of his parents' modest income. Eventually he chose Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. He did not even apply to any private colleges.
"I felt that private colleges are too expensive, and I didn't want to put big burden to my parents," said Lee, now an information technology executive at an investment bank in Manhattan. "Compared to private colleges, CUNY is a good bargain with competitive programs."
Lee is one of the hundreds of thousands of graduates of CUNY, the largest urban university in the United States with 230,000 students in its 23 institutions. Historically serving a diverse student body, especially those excluded from or unable to afford private universities, CUNY offers education to New York City's working class and immigrants. Thirty-eight percent of its first-time freshmen were born overseas.
Mostly immigrants could not afford the high price of private colleges," said Lee. "CUNY is definitely an alternative to high prices of private colleges and opportunity to allow immigrant students with little money to have a decent college education."
Today CUNY and SUNY, or the State University of New York face a number of challenges, including rising tuition and the fight to provide a quality education. With Gov. Eliot Spitzer promising major changes at the two institutions, many wonder what that will mean for schools that have provided many immigrants with the education they needed to better their lives and the lives of their children.
Keeping the Price Down
John Liu, a New York City Councilmember from Flushing, Queens, and a graduate of SUNY Binghamton, said public higher education is indispensable to immigrant families. "And it is not just special for immigrants but also for other working-class families," said Liu, who emigrated from Taiwan at 5. "It is important to the equalizing of the playing field."
Liwia Rosamond, a native of Poland, came to New York in 1997 and eventually settled in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. After teaching English as a second language teacher for many years, she earned a Master's degree in French literature and culture from Hunter College, also a CUNY institution.
"CUNY gave me a new career," said Rosamond, who recently found a job teaching French in a high school in Queens. "As an immigrant and adult, I was able to work full-time, pay my New York rent and get my master's degree at Hunter. I believe that this is one of the very few places where you can get a high-quality education at an affordable price."
The city university, though, is more expensive today than it once was. With the aim of serving the underprivileged, CUNY was tuition-free until 1975, when the city's fiscal crisis forced it to impose tuition. Now the four-year colleges charge $4,000 per year while the community colleges are priced at $2,800 per year and receive public funding.
SUNY, the largest university system in the nation with 64 campuses and over 400,000 students, also receives public funds. Its price tag is set at $4,350 for four-year colleges and $3,176 for two-year colleges.
While the tuition rates at CUNY and SUNY have increased by 25 percent or more in the last decade, they still fall behind other major state flagship institutions. For example, the University of Michigan charges from $5,129 to $7,126, and Rutgers University in New Jersey between $8,540 and $9,484. The University of California at Berkeley, widely recognized as the top public university in the country, is priced at about $8,000 per year, while the tuition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ranges from $8,440 to $12,232 depending on the major. Out-of-state and international students generally pay more than double the price.
Undocumented Immigrants and Public College
As legal immigrants and their children continue to benefit from the quality education from CUNY and SUNY, things can be more difficult for students without documentation. Ten states (California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington) offer in-state tuition to long-term undocumented students, who were born overseas but raised in America.
The subject recently became a hot issue in the Republican presidential race. In a CNN/YouTube debate with his fellow Republican candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attacked Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for giving illegal immigrants "special treatment" for offering them publicly subsidized college education. He also criticized former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for "welcoming" illegal immigrants. Both Giuliani and Huckabee support offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria.
According to CUNY's official Web site, an undocumented student in New York is eligible for in-state tuition if he or she has attended a New York high school for at least two years and graduated from it, or has attended a New York State program for a General Equivalency Diploma and received a GED issued in New York. In addition, the prospective student must apply for college within five years of high school graduation and file an affidavit stating that he or she has filed or will file for legal residency. The student also must show proof of New York residency.
Undocumented students who graduated from high school with at least a B average can also apply for the Vallone Academic Scholarship ($1,250 per year) if they enroll in college within two semesters after high school graduation and maintain at least a B average. They can also apply for the tuition-free Macaulay Honors College.
"As long as they pay taxes, I think it is right to offer them in-state tuition," said Lee. "A lot of these people pay taxes but do not get any benefit. I don't think it is right."
According to statistics, many of the country's 12 million illegal immigrants pay taxes under a purchased Social Security Number or a government-issued tax ID number for someone without a Social Security number. But they usually are unable to collect welfare or medical benefits except for emergency medical care and a primary and high school education. About $7 billion a year in taxes filed by undocumented immigrants pours into the Social Security Administration.
"New York has a long history of being friendly to all immigrants - both the documented and the undocumented ones," said Rosamond. "These undocumented people usually pay all the taxes just as the people with green cards, and they deserve to be treated like New York residents because they are."
That aside, Liu thinks helping immigrants get an education represents a good investment. "It will benefit the overall society because those who benefit from the education will only come back to make more money and pay more taxes than they would otherwise," he said.
However, according to State Legislature magazine, published by the National Conference of State Legislatures, many American apparently disagree. Some states that grant the in-state tuition are facing lawsuits from people who oppose that. Utah is looking into ending the policy, while Georgia and Arizona have both voted to bar illegal immigrants from receiving the in-state tuition benefit.
Reshaping New York's Public Universities
As the in-state tuition debate continues, a report conducted by Governor Eliot Spitzer's special commission on higher education has suggested that the state increase spending on public universities in the hope of revamping New York's public higher education. Many fear that another tuition hike could be just around the corner.
The 30-member commission, chaired by Hunter Rawlings, a former president of Cornell University, urged the state to create its own low-cost student loan program, and to hire 2,000 new full-time faculty, including 250 eminent scholars in five years.
The preliminary report called for the creation of a $3 billion innovation fund to support research at public and private universities in fields like bioscience, engineering and medicine that can drive economic development. It also called for more focused attention devoted to SUNY's four research campuses in Albany, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Buffalo.
Among other recommendations, the report said support for public universities should be more predictable, proposing a "compact" in which the costs of new investment would be shared by the state and the universities.
Both CUNY and SUNY administration applauded the report, saying it is an urgent matter to keep New Yorkers competitive.
"In 1975, CUNY employed more than 11,000 full-time faculty. Today, 6,500 full-time faculty work at the university," said Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of CUNY. "This is a decrease of more than 40 percent, although our student enrollment has grown to its highest level in over three decades. The commission's recommendation would help to reverse this pronounced decline."
Even if Spitzer embraces the plan, it is expected to face opposition in the legislature. Kenneth LaValle, a Republican senator from Port Jefferson and a member of the commission, said he favored modest, regular tuition increases but opposed having "differential tuition" from campus to campus, which would lead to higher tuition at the research centers.
"No student who attends the state university should have a feeling that their degree is worth less than those who are paying more money," he told the New York Times. "There were other ways to ensure that the research campuses drew more dollars."
Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues. Â