Throughout the pandemic, 25-year-old Jada Shannon has found it challenging to juggle her online classwork with trying to survive a pandemic. A junior at Hunter College majoring in both media studies and women and gender studies, Shannon had hoped to graduate on time, but the pandemic upended her timeline. With in-class instruction resuming across the City University of New Yorks (CUNY) 25 campuses this past fall, Shannon was excited to get back into the swing of things.
However, when she went to register for the particular courses she needed for her major, Shannon found many no longer available. Professors she had come to admire were no longer teaching. It was imperative that she complete her studies as quickly as possible or risk losing student financial aid. But being unable to take all the classes she needed left her confused.
I wonder if I will be able to complete my major and take more classes in the future, Shannon said. To me, its a sign that women and gender studies is not really valued and its so important because it is the study of oppression.
Shannons story is not unique. As the pandemic ravaged communities across the United States, public university systems such as CUNY took a major hit. All in all, CUNYs 25 campuses lost about $64 million in tuition revenue and saw a 4.4 percent drop in fall 2020 enrollment. Dozens of faculty and staff tragically succumbed to COVID-19, the largest number of any university system in the country. In July 2020, New York City cut funding for CUNYs fiscal year 2021 by $20 million. About 3,000 university adjuncts were laid off. As recently as 2015, CUNY had over 7,500 full-time professors; now, CUNY has only 6,822, a 9 percent cut.
Those people are not being replaced, but over time the student body is very stable and has been expanding, said James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union that represents CUNY faculty. The ratio of full-time professors to students is really dwindling and whole departments are being starved for faculty.
Last year, Brooklyn College administrators requested that departments cancel over 25 percent of its fall courses, leaving many students like Shannon in a state of panic. Yet many argue that, although the pandemic undoubtedly hurt CUNY, decades of disinvestment and austerity policies had left CUNY in an already fragile state. Now, students and organizers are pushing for a new deal for CUNY that sees the university system return to a tuition-free model.
CUNY IS THE NATIONS LARGEST urban public university system, serving one of the most racially and economically diverse student bodies in the country. Known as the poors man Harvard since its founding in 1847 with the Free Academy, CUNYs mission has always professed to provide a public first-rate education to all students, regardless of means or background.
Today that mission is falling short. Alan Aja, professor of public and urban policy and chair of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, has struggled to keep his department afloat during the pandemic. The effect on ethnic studies departments like mine are myriad: fewer course offerings, larger class sizes, few full-time tenured/tenure-track faculty to teach, advise, and mentor students, reliance on exploited adjunct instructors who are struggling to make ends meet, overburdened workloads on faculty of color, excessive committee work and service to the institution, fewer resources to do research, he says. Then they have the audacity to judge us solely by our productivity. Davis says that the model in which funding is allocated to programs such as ethnic studies is fundamentally flawed. He argues the dependency on tuition to generate funding is a hallmark example of how austerity policies are inherently racist.
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The departments that cant demonstrate, in effect, that they pay for themselves by bringing in enough students to generate the tuition to justify offering the classes are always on the chopping block, he said. And all too often its programs like ethnic studies, programs that came out of social movements in New York City and beyond.
Hailey Lam, a student organizer with the Free CUNY! movement as well as a senior at Brooklyn College majoring in English and political science, has also found it difficult during the pandemic, especially with staff cutbacks.
For students, one of their main issues is there are no advisers and they have no idea of how to navigate the school, she says. A lot of the first-year students end up paying out of pocket for classes they dont need for their majors because they dont know how majors work in CUNY.
As an added frustration, Lam says, even during the shutdowns, students are being forced to pay activity fees to fund student organizations and other programs. Classes are often canceled on short notice, she adds.
Although on paper, CUNY was tuition-free until 1976, not every student benefited from it. Until 1970, CUNY required students to pass a series of competitive tests, graduate with a minimum high school GPA, and be awarded a Regents diploma. Additionally, CUNY was only free for full-time students; part-time students had to pay out of pocket.
We have this tendency to romanticize free tuition, said professor Stephen Brier, co-author of Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. But it was always a qualified, limited free tuition, and many poor working-class students paid tuition and fees.
Hunter College student Jada Shannon protests outside the school last summer.
Things changed after Black and Latino students from City College led a series of successful campus takeovers to demand more access for minority students. CUNY administrators not only caved in to students demands but exceeded them, by implementing an open admissions policy that guaranteed all New York City high school graduates a spot at a CUNY school. Within a year, the student body had doubled, and within seven years, CUNYs majority-white student body had become a majoritypeople of color system that better reflected the mosaic of the city.
But despite the significant demographic shift, the victory was short-lived. By 1976, as the city faced a devastating fiscal crisis, state and federal officials forced in massive austerity measures that cut through the social fabric of the city. For the first time in CUNYs history, the New York State Board of Higher Education implemented a tuition charge in exchange for a total state takeover of CUNYs four-year college finances.
Whether its Democrats or Republicans running the state government, its been a downhill spiral ever since, said Brier. Thats 45 years of austerity budgets and austerity politics and its this unwillingness to understand how important CUNY is to the wider economy of the city and the state, as well as an avenue of upward mobility for working-class students.
Throughout the last three decades, CUNY has never recovered to its prefiscal crisis state. From the start of the 1990s to the 20192020 academic year, full-time equivalent student investment by New York City in the CUNY senior colleges declined overall by 37.7 percent, when adjusted for inflation.
In his first year in office, in 2011, disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo implemented devastating budget cuts that saw a $95.1 million reduction in state support for CUNY senior colleges and a $12.3 million reduction in base aid to CUNY community colleges. Over the three years prior to 2011, the state had already cut $350 million from CUNYs budget. In fact, from the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis to the current semester, academic investment in CUNY senior colleges has declined by 20.57 percent.
Over the last decade, not just in New York but across the country, we have seen a major disinvestment in public higher education, said New York state Sen. Andrew Gounardes.
DUE TO THE PANDEMIC, CUNY faced even more severe budget cuts, but in March, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, CUNY was able to receive $794 million in federal aid. In total, CUNY received $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funds. Half will be distributed to emergency financial aid programs and services to assist students with housing, food, and health care. The rest will cover institutional costs and additional support services.
The money was enough to stave off additional budget cuts for the foreseeable future. But although relieved, Davis believes that without a long-term commitment by the state to fully fund the university system and undo decades of austerity, its only a matter of time until CUNY is on the chopping block once more.
The paradox is that CUNY really needed major investment from the state in terms of the last budget cycle and instead we just kind of broke even, he said. Breaking even wasnt good enough because its after many, many years of disinvestment and flat budgets and increased expenses.
The failure of President Bidens proposal for tuition-free community college, originally part of the Build Back Better package, dashed hopes for a tuition-free CUNY again. But in February, Sen. Gounardes introduced a bill called the New Deal for CUNY, that aims to reverse decades of systematic underfunding. Beyond that, the bill will also eliminate undergraduate tuition, replacing it with public funds. It would transfer $332 million in funding available to CUNY undergraduates through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to help offset the cost of free tuition.
CUNY is probably the single best avenue of economic mobility we have in New York City, said Gounardes. So to invest in CUNY is to invest in not only the 500,000 students that attend there but the millions of people who are related to and affiliated with those students, and that has a massive trickle-down effect on the entire economy in New York City.
For Jada Shannon, although she has struggled over the past two years, she remains hopeful about a tuition-free future.
Yes, CUNY can definitely be free. I think it will happen in my lifetime.
This story was reported with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.