CUNY students could see their tuition rise by more than 30% by 2016, after the State Legislature passed a measure in June that allows the Board of Trustees to increase tuition by $300 per year in each of the next five years. The five-year plan includes a “maintenance of effort” commitment not to reduce State support below the previous year’s level, but it will not take effect until the next fiscal year. This means that this year’s current low level becomes the base for next year’s funding.
CUNY wasted little time acting on the new legislation, which was approved in June. On July 21 the Board of Trustees Executive Committee voted to approve a $300 tuition hike in 2011-2012 for both senior and community college students. This comes on top of a $230 senior college and $150 community college tuition hike that the board authorized last November.
A State Supreme Court judge briefly blocked the new hike in response to a lawsuit by three Lehman students, who contended that action by the full board was required. The full Board of Trustees quickly met on August 3 to approve the increase, raising annual tuition to $5,130 per year at CUNY’s senior colleges (an 11.5% rise over Fall 2010) and $3,600 per year at the community colleges (a 14.3% hike over Fall 2010).
“The more expensive CUNY gets, the more exclusive it becomes,” said Domingo Estevez, a BMCC student who had planned to transfer to City College in Spring 2012 to study political science and pre-law or international law. Now, he is uncertain about whether to continue his education as the increased tuition will make it necessary for him to take out loans, something he is reluctant to do. Estevez, 23, participated in several protests this spring against budget cuts, and is now organizing against increased tuition.
“Trying to fund CUNY through tuition increases is bad public policy,” said PSC First Vice President Steve London. “Expecting some of the nation’s poorest students to pay more and more will only reduce access to college and expand social inequality – the opposite of CUNY’s mission. And it will never provide the funds that CUNY needs.”
Public funding for CUNY has been reduced by more than $300 million in the last three years. The PSC and other CUNY advocates have urged renewal of NY’s “millionaire’s tax” and other progressive tax reforms to provide CUNY with stable funding.
The new legislation includes a “maintenance of effort” requirement for State funding during its five-year term – that is, State funding is not supposed to go lower than the previous year’s budget. This provision represents a pledge not to use the tuition hikes as an occasion to slash public support even further, as done in the past.
This “floor” on funding comes with several limitations. The “effort” that must be maintained – the budgetary baseline set by this year’s budget – is lower than last year’s budget. The requirement can be suspended altogether if the governor declares a “fiscal emergency.”
Crucially, this funding floor is set in current dollars, with no adjustments for inflation. “There were provisions in both the Assembly and Senate versions of the bill to cover mandatory cost increases in the maintenance-of-effort formula,” said London. “But the governor refused to include this, and it was not included in the final bill.” (This means the legislation is missing a central element of the “CUNY Compact” advocated by CUNY central administration.)
“Next year we’re going to have to fight for inflation-adjusted increases in the budget,” London explained, “or the value of the base budget will decline as it has in years past.”
The new tuition law was the remnant of a much more ambitious effort to “deregulate” CUNY and SUNY funding that has been fought out in Albany over the last few years. Supporters of the proposed Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA) had sought tuition increases of 9-10% per year, including unlimited differential tuition by campus and even by major. They also sought to greatly scale back State oversight of SUNY in its colleges’ partnerships with private industry and real estate developers. Differential tuition and most of the anti-oversight provisions were defeated, while the multi-year tuition hikes were approved.
If a student receives the maximum TAP award of $5,000, he or she will not have to pay tuition in excess of the maximum, but the University will have to absorb the difference and give the student a tuition credit. In other words, in an effort to help low income students, the State law is making CUNY pay for a tuition credit without providing CUNY with more funds.
Fifty-four percent of CUNY students come from households earning less than $30,000 per year. Many CUNY students are eligible for only limited TAP assistance or no TAP at all. This is especially true for those attending part-time, financially independent students without children, and the undocumented. For these and other students, this so-called “rational tuition” policy will place one more impediment in their way as they seek an education.