(photo: John McCarten/City Council)
I’m a CUNY graduate twice over – my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both from Brooklyn College. Between the seven years I took for my four-year degree, and the four years for my two-year degree, I’ve spent about as much time on a CUNY campus as anyone. My professors, my fellow students, my overall CUNY experience shaped who I am and what my driving principles are -- what I’ve been fighting for as an activist and an elected official.
Now, as tuition rises and investment stagnates, I fear that students across our city will be denied that transformative, invaluable, CUNY experience.
As outlined in my recent report, government funding for CUNY has failed to keep up with booming enrollment. From 2008 to 2017, per-student funding from the state dropped 18 percent, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth. This continued underfunding has hamstrung CUNY’s ability to provide a quality education for thousands of students, most of whom are people or more color and graduated from our city’s public schools.
In fact, the student body of CUNY appears directly related to its funding. When CUNY was first established, it was tuition-free, in recognition of the need for accessible, high-quality public education. But as the complexion of CUNY students changed, so too did the policy, with black and brown student majorities made to bear the brunt of the expense as the balance of funding CUNY shifted away from government and toward the student population. This has naturally also contributed to the overall challenges of financing this “public” education.
With limited resources, CUNY has seen its operational quality threatened as the system has to rely on underpaid adjunct faculty to teach its students, many of whom work additional jobs to pay their bills. CUNY has also been forced to cut student support services—like academic and mental health advisors or hours at writing centers—and course selections, leaving many students unable to register for a mandatory class.
Financial shortcomings are also evident in CUNY’s physical infrastructure—broken toilets, exposed wiring, vermin outbreaks, flooding, and broken elevators further detract from the educational experience of today’s students.
Unfortunately, the students who suffer the most from underfunding are those who most need our help. CUNY’s constrained budget provides limited opportunity for it to help support its most vulnerable students, many of whom are food insecure, homeless, or come from low-income families. While tuition remains comparatively low, CUNY students who receive tuition assistance still must pay for major expenses like housing and food, forcing them to work for pay and spend more time away from their studies. Without proper support, CUNY students are finding it hard to graduate.
However, there’s a silver lining: CUNY knows what works and just needs the resources to do it.
CUNY has created innovative programming, like ACE and ASAP, which have already boosted graduation rates and improved educational outcomes. Other programs aimed at providing support for specific marginalized communities, including the Black Male Initiative and Citizenship! Now, help campuses retain and support students of more color, who make up the majority of CUNY’s population.
These programs and others are part of why CUNY campuses are among the best nationwide for raising the economic statuses of the system’s most vulnerable students—a pathway and an opportunity for lower- and middle-class students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s also critical to know when something doesn’t work, like the Excelsior Scholarship, which made headlines but not real change, as nowhere near enough students saw relief from ever-escalating costs of a college education.
To ensure CUNY can support its mission of serving as a vehicle of social mobility that provides quality education for all New Yorkers, New York State and New York City must increase investment in public higher education. Crucially, the city must specifically increase its funding for CUNY senior colleges, which have historically received limited city funding, to better match their contribution to our city’s economy and culture.
This month, CUNY’s staff and faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), ratified a new contract that secured historic gains for nearly 30,000 workers. But any discussion of increasing wages must be coupled with calls to address the underlying issue: the need for New York to increase its financial commitment to public higher education.
Our state and city leaders are now at a critical juncture. They can either decide to build on their investment in higher ed and ensure students receive a quality affordable education, or allow an invaluable, historic educational institution to decline, along with the opportunities it creates.
With greater funding, CUNY will be able to increase the percentage of its faculty that works full-time and raise salaries for remaining adjuncts. It can also expand its student tuition-assistance programs to include more part-time students and even currently incarcerated individuals. And it can continue to build on its world-class programming, providing an invaluable education for generations of New Yorkers like it did for me and so many others already.
Jumaane Williams is the Public Advocate of the City of New York. On Twitter @JumaaneWilliams.