Contrary to glowing headlines in the press on the value of a CUNY education, the state has steadily disinvested from higher education over the past quarter century. This critical lack of funding affects learning conditions.
At the end of August, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an exultant press release trumpeting the fact that four City University of New York colleges made it into the top five “Best Bang for the Buck” colleges in the Northeast as determined by Washington Monthly.
“New York has a long and proud tradition of providing a high-quality affordable education through our public colleges and universities,” he said. “I am proud of these CUNY campuses and this well-deserved recognition.”
Those of us who teach at CUNY – and I can proudly say I teach at Brooklyn College – find that statement galling. Not only have faculty and support staff such as secretaries and janitors been working without a contract for six years, but the period defined by the past 25 years has seen a steady defunding of CUNY by the state.
Diverse Student Body
A Daily News headline a few weeks ago – “Kids Flock to CUNY Schools” – touted the fact that CUNY is educating 278,000 students, an all-time high, a jump of 42 percent from 2000. This group of young people is 75 percent black, Latino or Asian; more than half of their families make less than $30,000 a year. And 42 percent of them are the first in their families to go to college.
As faculty, many of us get to know those students well. We understand the lives behind the statistics that make the work they do in our classes – English, biology, education, philosophy or business – even more impressive. We get emails apologizing for an absence to go to a funeral or to ask if it is OK to bring a child to class because they have no child care.
One young man would arrive late to my morning journalism class after working until 11 pm the night before at Target. Other students run between a couple of jobs and school.
A woman who had been quiet in class told me, after much hesitation, how her family was being harassed by their new landlord to vacate their apartment. She ended up representing them in housing court.
But as a group, CUNY students don’t complain. They are hesitant to put their problems in your lap or to ask for extras or sympathy. And that’s why so many of us enjoy teaching here. The state doesn’t seem to appreciate that.
Our contract issues are just part of the longtime desertion of CUNY by the state. In the 1990-91 school year, at senior colleges like Brooklyn, the state contributed 74 percent of the budget while tuition added 21 percent. In 2014-15, state aid had dropped to 53 percent and tuition support rose to 46 percent of CUNY’s budget.
By 2014, the portion of the CUNY budget drawn from tuition had almost doubled to 42 percent.
But there is more. In 1975, CUNY had 11,500 full-time faculty. As of fall 2014, there were 7,698. The rest of the teaching is done by some 12,000 adjuncts, sometimes rushing from one campus to another, cobbling together a poverty-level salary based on the roughly $3,000 they earn for teaching each class. Many don’t have time to meet with students after class.
What all this means is that our students – through tuitions that have gone up 58 percent since 2011-12 – are contributing a much larger portion of the money that keeps CUNY going, and getting less for it.
Yes, this is a national phenomenon. Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, cites figures from the College Board’s “Trends in College Pricing” that show that in 2001-02, public colleges received 44 percent to 62 percent of their funding from state governments. By 2012, it had fallen to 27 percent to 51 percent.
But New York, in some cases, has an especially bad case of the funding flu. Cuomo recently said that the city should increase its spending on CUNY rather than have the state contribute more. In either case, our students’ rising tuition fees are not being used to hire new professors or increase the number of sections of courses so that class size will be reduced.
Searches for new faculty are being canceled, courses are required to have larger class sizes and colleges are figuring out ways to cut. The Assembly and Senate passed a bill in June designed to ensure that the state does more to meet its obligations to fund CUNY. It is up to Cuomo to sign it. If you want to brag about the outstanding public education that New York offers, it’s only fair to put the money where your mouth is. ______________________________
Siegel is an assistant professor of journalism, English and education at Brooklyn College. This article originally ran in the October 1, 2015, edition of the New York Daily News.