There is nothing that quite stokes the passion of some City Council members than when representatives from CUNY are in the building.
The Council held a preliminary budget hearing on higher education on Friday, and with several CUNY graduates in the Council, the line of questioning took a more personal tone, complete with angst over rising tuition costs, and concern about programs currently facing the chopping block.
Inez Barron, Chair of the Committee of Higher Education, presided over the hearing. “If CUNY had not been free, I would not have been able to go,” she said. “So that’s my goal. To continue to find ways to have free tuition.” Each councilmember was given 5 minutes to question the main CUNY representatives, Vice Chancellors Matthew Sapienza and Iris Weinshall.
Vice Chancellor Sapienza explained that CUNY’s enrollment has increased by 10% since 2008, and provides education for approximately 270,000 degree-seeing students, and 248,000 continuing education students. He juxtaposed this with the kind of funding that CUNY has been receiving over the past five years. “Since fiscal year 2009, the state base aid rate for community colleges has decreased by almost 9.5%…mandatory costs – such as fringe benefits, energy, and contractual salary increments – have continued to increase annually.”
As part of the State’s higher education agreement in 2011, CUNY and SUNY were permitted to increase their tuition by $300 a year for five years. Defending the university system’s increasing tuition, the CUNY Vice Chancellors emphasized that all the tuition money from students went directly back to the students.
“Between 1976 and 2006 every single time that tuition was increased, every single dollar of that increase went to fill budget shortfalls, and for thirty years our students did not get the benefit of one dollar of those tuition increases,” Sapienza stated. “Something that we fought for as a university was smaller but planned tuition increases. So that students can plan for it, but more important, those dollars can be used to invest in our campuses…our students are feeling the benefit of those increases.”
When prompted about financial resources available to CUNY students, Sapienza and Weinshall explained that approximately 60 percent of CUNY undergraduates attend tuition free. Along with the TAP program, Pell Grants, and enhancing the federal work study program, CUNY has carved out $10 million in tuition revenues for financial assistance to students who are at risk of not graduating. That assistance extends to books, Sapienza explained.
“We set aside 2.5 million of that 10 million, and we purchased textbooks so that students can now go to our college libraries and take the textbook on loan for the semester,” he said.
Reductions to the ASAP program was of particular concern to the Council. The program focuses on low-income students who require remedial work. Weinshall stated, “We actually are facing a reduction in the ASAP program, because the state legislature added 1.7 million for the current year. In the governor’s proposed budget for next year, that money is not included. If it’s not restored, we’re going to have to scale back the number of seats we have in the ASAP program.”
Another program facing cuts is CUNY Prep in the Bronx. The principal, Jenny Ristenbatt, was on hand to testify on behalf of the school. Vice Chancellor Sapienza explained, “These are students 16 to 18 who have dropped out of high school. It has been wonderfully successful. Close to 80% of students who have taken the GED have passed the exam…and these are students who have been written off in terms of their possibilities. And one other thing I would mention is that close to 50% of the students in this program are males, which is extraordinarily important.” This echoed the sentiments recently expressed by President Obama.
“Well, we have to fight to keep this,” said Councilman James Vacca. “I will certainly advocate for that.”
Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, particularly empathized with CUNY’s financial struggles. “The reason why you’re raising tuition is because the State and the City is not coming through for you. You’re trying to fill the gap.”
Diplomatically, Sapienza replied, “We are grateful that the budget reductions after 2008 have stopped and things have stabilized.”