Gotham Gazette

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CUNY Funding a Key Issue in State and City Budget Negotiations


Gov. Hochul speaks at LaGuardia Community College CUNY (photo: @CUNY)

Funding for the City University of New York, CUNY, is among a number of major focus issues as elected officials negotiate a new state budget this month and a new city budget by July.

Lawmakers, students, faculty, and others are concerned about proposals in both Governor Kathy Hochul’s and Mayor Eric Adams’ budget proposals, which are now the source of negotiations with their respective legislatures. Though Hochul included a modest increase in overall funding for CUNY in her January executive budget, she also proposed tuition increases that have been widely criticized. Adams, meanwhile, has offered cuts in city funding for CUNY, some of which have already gone into effect, with others proposed for next fiscal year.

On Thursday, CUNY students, faculty and elected officials rallied outside the governor's New York City office to demand substantial increases in funding for CUNY and to push back against any tuition hikes. 

CUNY is funded by all three levels of government and its own tuition revenue, among other funding streams like alumni, corporate, and philanthropic giving. The new state budget, expected this month after the April 1 start of the new state fiscal year has already been missed, will then impact the city budget passed in June — and both will go a long way in determining CUNY’s budget and future.

Many stakeholders, including students, faculty, and members of the State Legislature and the New York City Council, have pushed back against the proposed cuts and tuition increases, while seeking to significantly increase funding for CUNY in the upcoming state and city budgets. In a formal response to Mayor Adams’ preliminary budget, the City Council recently called on the administration to “restore and baseline $36.9 million in programmatic initiatives and cuts” to CUNY funding.

Over 271,000 students are enrolled across CUNY’s 25 colleges. Enrollment has decreased university-wide, though mostly at the community colleges, dropping more than 10% during the pandemic, though there has been some recent rebound. At community colleges, one metric shows a roughly 30% decline in enrollment since 2018. The CUNY Reconnect program, in part spearheaded and funded by the New York City Council, has shown cause for optimism, re-enrolling over 16,000 students in the 2022-23 academic year (6,000 more than projected) as it brings former CUNY students back into the fold — progress some say is at risk amid consideration of tuition increases and budget cuts.

CUNY senior colleges’ operating budgets are funded up to 60% by New York State, with capital budgets covered 100% by the State. Meanwhile, CUNY community colleges are largely funded via the New York City budget, which covers approximately 47% of all those costs – meaning almost all capital expenses and about one-third of all operating costs. The remaining community college expenses are covered by tuition and funding from the state.

In recent months, CUNY leaders have testified at state and city legislative budget hearings, alternately arguing against budget cuts, in support of modest tuition increases, and that CUNY can make do with what it is being given by state and city leaders, generally speaking, even if some programming is harmed. At the same time, CUNY faculty, staff, and students as well as their allies in government and beyond have testified and lobbied to increase investments in the university system, which largely educates lower- and middle-income students from the five boroughs and is a proven source of socioeconomic mobility.

At a March New York City Council higher education committee hearing on the mayor’s preliminary budget plan for next fiscal year, CUNY Chief Operating Officer Héctor Batista underscored the value of a robust CUNY for New York. Not only does CUNY graduate approximately half of all nurses in the city — about 1,800 per year — but it provides degrees for about one-third of all new teachers in New York City public schools. And, Batista told the City Council, “More than 80% of CUNY graduates stay in New York and contribute to the city’s economic, civic, and cultural life.”

The New York State Budget
Hochul’s $227 billion executive budget, released February 1, included $5.7 billion in appropriations for CUNY, including $1.92 billion in state assistance for operating funds, $3.15 billion from various funding sources (federal aid, grants and scholarships, tuition, and fees) and $643 million in new capital funding (in addition to $3.44 billion reappropriated for capital projects).

At the state legislative higher education hearing on the governor’s executive budget proposal later that month, CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez testified that Hochul’s proposal for CUNY includes $642.7 million in new funding for the capital budget and $94 million more in operating funds than the current fiscal year. Hochul’s proposed CUNY funding includes $119.7 million for community colleges, according to that testimony. The chancellor also defended the proposed tuition increase.

In mid-March, the two houses of the Legislature passed their one-house budget resolutions, which helped set the stage for final negotiations on a new spending plan, which are ongoing as the new fiscal year already began on April 1 (state leaders have passed 'extenders' to pay the state's bills).

The State Assembly proposed investing $1.1 billion in new capital funding for CUNY, compared to the governor’s $643 million proposal, and $246 million more in operating funds than the governor’s proposal, for a total of $2.17 billion, while also rejecting any tuition increases. The Assembly also proposed setting aside $470 million for an endowment matching fund and proposed increasing state funding for CUNY community colleges by 4%, an $8 million increase.

“This spending plan ensures that New York State’s higher education system remains affordable, competitive, and a national and international pinnacle of postsecondary education,” said Assemblymember Patricia Fahy, chair of the Assembly higher education committee, in a statement. 

The Senate’s budget not only rejected tuition hikes, but proposed $149 million in additional operating aid to CUNY over Hochul’s proposal and tweaked the $643 million capital increase proposal by instead recommending a restoration of $435 million in flexible capital funding, among other smaller capital investments.

The New York City Budget
Mayor Adams’ preliminary budget for CUNY for the city’s 2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is $1.27 billion — a $168.5 million cut compared with the budget adopted in June 2022 for the current fiscal year, according to City Council budget documentation. Virtually the entire decrease is focused at CUNY community colleges, which the city is primarily charged with funding, and where there have been significant enrollment drops.

And that’s on top of the $13.7 million cut in city funds for CUNY that the mayor made in the middle of the current fiscal year and is already being felt at the schools.

The city’s capital commitment plan for CUNY is about $412.4 million across fiscal years  2023-2027, including about $98.9 million for next fiscal year (FY 2024) — a number likely to increase, as unspent capital funds from the current year are rolled forward.

While the mayor has promised that his budget would not allow cuts to affect “pedagogical,” or student-facing, jobs, at the City Council higher education committee preliminary budget hearing, members’ questioning of CUNY executives revealed that this simply would not be the case.

“It’s impossible to absorb a $170 million cut at the community college level without affecting instruction. We will do our absolute level best to meet the needs of our students, but there is no question that there will be an impact,” said CUNY Provost Wendy Hensel, clarifying for the Council that student-facing jobs will be cut. “There’s no doubt that money matters in terms of recruiting [professors],” Hensel added, pointing out that CUNY will struggle to remain competitive if the salaries they provide are stagnant.

Of many CUNY programs on the chopping block, two are particularly harmful to students and even the university’s bottom line. One, CUNY’s Accelerate, Complete, and Engage (ACE) program, is “designed to help students complete their academic journey to the bachelor’s degree on time,” according to CUNY’s website. It is based on another program, the award-winning Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which also aligns services, in this case to help students earn their associate’s degrees, mostly at CUNY community colleges.

When probed for statistics at the Council hearing, Hensel said that ASAP actually saves the university $6,500 per student, compared with students not in the program, based on its record of graduating students in under four years. With large numbers of CUNY students participating in ASAP, the program generates an estimated $80 million per year in savings. It has already been designated to be cut next fall. City Council Member Eric Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Council’s higher education committee, responded by saying that CUNY had presented “not the wisest investment choices in this budget.”

Another successful program set to lose funding is CUNY Reconnect, which costs $4.4 million annually, but generates roughly $80 million in tuition funds in the same time period. Spearheaded by New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodriguez, the program assists people who have previously left CUNY to re-enroll. It initially had the target of re-enrolling 10,000 students for this academic year but far exceeded that goal, and enrolled over 16,600 students as of this current semester.

Until the state and then city budgets are passed in the coming weeks and months, funding for CUNY and specifically its seven community colleges remain in the balance.

While capital projects at senior CUNY colleges are fully funded by the State, community colleges require 50% of funds to be matched by local entities.

Bátista of CUNY told the City Council that CUNY is requesting $745 million in capital support, to be provided by the city and state in total – roughly equivalent to the $742 million appropriated between the city and state for fiscal year 2024. Dinowitz pointed out that the need for this support has been evident, citing that Bronx Community College was forced to move courses online after weeks without heat late last Fall.

Dinowitz further addressed the need for ADA compliance as part of capital improvements, calling the addition of ramps and elevators not simply discretionary, but vital — and indeed legally required – for providing access to education. Bátista agreed that ADA compliance is necessary, but added that “our need is tremendous” and that at the moment CUNY is doing all it can to simply “triage” current infrastructure issues. “The money that we get does not really cover all the challenges we have at the university,” he said.

Professional Staff Congress (PSC) of CUNY President James Davis, whose union includes roughly 30,000 CUNY faculty and staff members, testified further about the contributions CUNY makes to the city in economic and cultural impact, and the impossibility for the university and PSC members to thrive without more investment.

“We urge the Council to understand CUNY for what it is, a beacon of hope for working-class New Yorkers and an unparalleled driver of social and economic mobility,” Davis said in his testimony to the City Council, in which he outlined the need for an additional $35.5 million to hire 264 full-time academic advisors along with $11 million to train mental health advisors.

PSC-CUNY, which is now beginning to negotiate a new contract with CUNY after its prior one expired in February, has since made a statement commending the proposed budgets from the Senate and Assembly. With sights set on passing the New Deal for CUNY legislation, that would, among other things, make tuition free, Davis said, “The Legislature’s opposition to tuition hikes and the investments they have prioritized can bring us closer to realizing a New Deal for CUNY while protecting students and staff from painful cuts to academic programs and student services threatened by pandemic enrollment declines and the expiration of federal stimulus.”

In a brief interview, Davis told Gotham Gazette that it is time for a serious shift in how government funds CUNY. “Every year, we’re [testifying] in Albany, and at City Hall, because we're in the public sector. And we just can't afford to stay on the sideline. There’s been a decade or more of caps and flat budgets for the university, and it winds up really affecting our members and the students that we serve.”

by Talia Barrington, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Samar Khurshid contributed to this story.

Note - this article has been updated. 

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