Across the country the rising costs of college and the heavy student loan debt burden already carried by the millennial generation are shaping up to be defining issues for the 2016 election.
In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for community colleges to become “as free and universal in America as high school.”
While nationally thought to be novel initiative in American policy, free and truly affordable college tuition was part of the proud core of CUNY’s mission with the founding of the Free Academy, CUNY’s earliest iteration in 1847.
While over the years qualifying for free tuition did involve merit based criteria, maintaining tuition affordability was a top priority, but the 1975 fiscal crisis changed things. Budget cuts and of ever-escalating tuition followed.
City Councilmember Inez Barron addresses the crowd during a contract campaign rally this past Spring. Barron, a Hunter college graduate, is pushing for a restoration in CUNY’s free tuition policy.
Enter City Councilmember Inez Barron, chair of the Council’s Higher Education Committee. As part of a growing national interest in tuition-free college, she is pushing for the restoration of CUNY’s free tuition policy with the establishment of a task force of 13 members that will include both students and faculty to bring the proposal to life.
Introducing the bill June 16 to the Council, Barron told Clarion that current political developments had her optimistic that the restoration of free tuition was doable.
“If the people come together and make demands and consistently press and mobilize they can make it happen,” she said. “I think we see an example of that with the pushback [in response to] when the Governor tried to force the city” to assume hundreds of millions of dollars in operating costs.
Barron added, “We said, ‘No you can’t do that,’ and there was an organized push. The power still is with the people.”
For Barron, restoring CUNY’s free tuition policy is personal. “I would not have gone to college,” she said. “My parents couldn’t afford to pay. I was a pretty good student and I got accepted at other institutions, but they were private and I didn’t get a scholarship.”
PSC First Vice President Michael Fabricant testified at the hearing that a return to free tuition was only part of what needed to happen to shift investment into the CUNY system, which, he said, “means increasing the number of full-time faculty, improving advisement, expanding student support services.”
Specifically, Fabricant addressed the difficulty that any reduction in tuition for CUNY would mean having to find other ways of bringing in revenue. He asked the panel to analyze “existing and potential sources of revenue that could provide resources beyond replacing tuition given the University’s serious and long-term underfunding.”
“If every dime of CUNY’s tuition revenue were to be replaced with federal funding or money from some other source, CUNY would still be drastically underresourced. There would still be a shortage of full-time faculty,” he said.
In an era of rising income inequality, that’s particularly pronounced for working-class households and communities of color, where access to a free college education would be transformational, according to testimony by Mallory Nugent, senior policy analyst for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
Nugent told the council panel that education was the key factor in economic stability and upper mobility, especially for low-income students.
“Without a college degree a child born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has a 45 percent chance of remaining there, and only a 5 percent chance of reaching the top fifth,” Nugent said. “When that same child earns a college degree their chances of making it to the top nearly quadruples and their chance of making it out of the bottom increase by 50 percent.”
Harold Stolper, senior economist for the Community Service Society of New York, testified that over the last few years a four-year college degree has increasingly been beyond the reach of New York City’s poorest families.
“If we look at the neediest students coming from families with less than in $30,000 income, who are federal aid applicants, their net price, tuition minus aid, has gone up more than 50 percent at four-year colleges in the past five years, but only 10 percent at two-year colleges” he said. “At the same time, the enrollment has sort of worked in the other direction with these students enrolling at much higher numbers at the two-year colleges.”
As a consequence of these recent tuition pricing trends, the poorest college applicants are increasingly opting for two-year colleges, a move that saves money in the short run but holds back the lifetime earning potential they’d have with a four-year degree, Stolper said.
“We have concerns about these neediest students being shifted to two-year colleges where, in some cases, they are less likely to succeed,” he said. “We want to make sure that affordability policy ensures that the neediest New Yorkers are not steered to two-year colleges if they are, in fact, capable of succeeding at four-year colleges.”
The current cost burdens are noticeable. As The New York Times reported in May, “The share of CUNY’s $3.2 billion budget that comes from tuition has climbed to 45 percent, up from 20 percent in 1989. In the last five years, tuition at its four-year colleges has risen by $300 per year to $6,330 for New York State residents. Undergraduates must also pay an extra $280 a year, at least, in fees. It is a daunting burden for students, more than half of whom report family incomes below $30,000, according to school data.”
But experts told the City Council that free tuition was a solution to only part of the puzzle for low-income students to succeed and graduate. Carmel Martin of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, said that for the poorest students, covering living expenses by working can lead to them dropping out.
“Even someone with low or no tuition may still struggle,” she said. “If they cannot cover living expenses like rent, food, transportation or childcare or they may have to work so many hours to pay for these costs that they fall behind in the classroom, which drives our low college completion rates.”
Recent Brooklyn College computer science graduate John McFarland asked the council to consider adding additional students to the blue ribbon panel.
“Like many New York City residents, I come from a single parent, low-income home,” he said. “My mother struggled to put a roof over my head and often had to sell her jewelry to make ends meet. When I was 17 I dropped out of high school and got my GED.”
In an emotional speech, he said he was headed on “a downward spiral in crime that eventually leads to incarceration,” but that his “mother fought to make sure that didn’t happen.”
“Thanks to CUNY, I had access to affordable education that gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Now, as a graduate I can say with certainty that CUNY saved my life,” McFarland said.
A REVENUE MAKER
For Councilmember Ben Kallos, a State University of New York graduate, a return to free tuition for the CUNY system would be the most effective economic development tool the city could use. By boosting lifetime earnings for generations of current and future New Yorkers, he argued, those people would see their lifetime earnings soar. For the city, this would increase tax revenue – a win-win situation, he said.
“Rather than rezoning New York City from affordable housing and manufacturing into luxury development, we could double city, state and federal income collection by simply funding CUNY education through free tuition,” Kallos said.
Calculating that the city would see immediate returns on investment within three years, he added. “For an initial investment of $22,922, the 40-year payoff, if someone stays in the city, is about $346,398. That’s a return on investment of about 15 times, which is better than you will see with any hedge fund.”
According to testimony from CUNY officials, $1.5 billion, or 45 percent of CUNY’s $3.2 billion operating revenue, currently comes from student tuition, a portion that has been increasing over time. $784 million comes out of students’ pockets, with the remaining balance coming in the form of government aid and grants.
Restoration of free tuition would cost close to $800 million, according to Katherine Abata, CUNY’s budget director. Currently one fifth of CUNY’s graduates leave school with, on average, between $12,000 and $14,000 in debt.
“We would expect enrollment to grow if tuition was eliminated,” said James Murphy, CUNY’s dean for enrollment management. “However, over the last eight years, CUNY’s enrollment has increased by 30,000 students. We don’t currently have the faculty or the space to increase enrollment any further.”
But Stephen Brier, PSC member and professor of history at the Graduate Center, testified that current conditions were already unacceptable. He said, “We will only bring CUNY back to its earlier educational glories if we not only reinstitute free tuition, but also directly confront the neoliberal attacks on higher education.”