To reduce inequality, reinvest in CUNY

Since 1847, the City University of New York has provided millions of New Yorkers with a path out of poverty and an opportunity to contribute to our city. Every family whose mother, son, or grandfather went to Hunter, Bronx Community or Brooklyn College; every employer who has hired a CUNY graduate; and every public agency that depends on CUNY to educate its workforce benefits from the nation’s largest and most diverse urban public university. CUNY connects New Yorkers across boroughs, zip codes, races and social classes.

Like many of our colleagues, we have chosen to teach at CUNY because we are rewarded daily by the determination, passion and intelligence of our students. We have the privilege of hearing about the successes of our graduates and the struggles of our students to persevere.

Now we worry that stalled contract negotiations and a retreat from state investment will damage our university’s mission and undermine the collective well being of our city.

In recent years, growing enrollment in the face of diminished state support, even at a time when the state’s finances are strong, has forced CUNY to drop courses, lay off part-time faculty members and cut money from student services. It has also deferred maintenance of aging facilities and delayed modernizing laboratories, a handicap for our science and technology students. CUNY is now a system overly reliant on underpaid, dedicated adjunct labor. The cost-cutting forces some students to delay graduation, a predictor of dropout, and saps faculty morale.

Young people who graduate from college enjoy better health, economic and employment opportunities than those who do not. And those opportunities benefit the city as a whole. Today 80% of CUNY students graduate free of student debt and 90% are employed or studying for an advanced degree three years after graduating. Studies of CUNY graduates show that the benefits of their education are passed down to successive generations, enriching the city and state far into the future.

What are the causes of CUNY’s current troubles? In the last decade, CUNY enrollment has surged by 55,000 but since the 2008 recession, the amount of per-student funding that CUNY receives from the state has declined 17%, adjusted for inflation. For the last five years, tuition has increased by $300 a year, putting added burdens on low- and middle-income students. More than half of CUNY students have family incomes below $30,000.

The tuition hikes have increased the proportion of CUNY’s budget paid by students at the same time that New York’s wealthiest residents have enjoyed tax cuts. In his state budget presented last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed to extend the annual tuition hikes for five years, add modestly to tuition assistance, and shift $485 million of CUNY’s costs to New York City. This clearly took the city by surprise.

Moreover, CUNY faculty have worked without a contract and without a raise for six years. As CUNY compensation levels fall below national standards, it has become more difficult to replenish the faculty needed to maintain CUNY standards. About half of CUNY’s courses are taught by adjuncts, whose low pay and meager benefits shame a state that stands for fair labor practices, and disadvantage students who need more full-time faculty for advising, career guidance and research supervision.

With more investment, CUNY could do much more for our students and for the city. Fewer than 25% of CUNY community college students graduate within three years and fewer than half of four-year college students graduate within six years. For many of our students, caring for children or siblings, earning income to support their family, and coping with the stresses of poverty and racism understandably interfere with pursuing their degrees. CUNY has demonstrated that it can significantly improve graduation rates with smaller classes, more advising, coordinated support services and financial assistance that enables students to attend school full time. However, the state has not provided CUNY with the resources to implement these innovations throughout the system.

When religious fanatics destroy cultural treasures elsewhere, the world is rightly horrified. But when public policies allow the city’s great institutions to deteriorate, too many regard the outcome as inevitable. For almost 160 years, New York has been a national model for providing equitable access to affordable higher education. Surely New York can afford to continue to set a standard for high-quality and affordable public higher education.

By finding the funds to reinvest in CUNY, the governor and the state legislature can demonstrate that their commitment to reducing inequality is more than rhetoric, that black and brown lives truly do matter, and that they value higher education sufficiently to work out their differences.

Meena Alexander, Michelle Fine and Nicholas Freudenberg are distinguished professors of English, psychology and public health, respectively, at the City University of New York.