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By JonMarcus
ust uptown from the epicenter of the world’s economic
crisis, Borough of Manhattan Community College is
a symbol of how the financial cataclysm that began a
few blocks away onWall Street has battered public higher
education in America.
It’s crowded. Very, very crowded. Every seat is taken in
every classroom you can see. Some of those seats are in the
aisles.There are lines outside the computer labs. Lines snake
through the food court.There are particularly long lines at the
financial-aid office.
With a central campus built to handle 8,000 students,
Borough of Manhattan is straining to contain some 21,700,
part of a 12 percent enrollment increase at the six community
colleges of the City University of NewYork and an eight
percent jump at CUNY systemwide, including in its 11 senior
colleges. Enrollment at CUNY’s upstate counterpart, the 64-
campus State University of NewYork, hit an unprecedented
439,523 this fall. At CUNY, there are more than 259,000
students, surpassing the previous record set in 1974, when it
was free.
And free, it isn’t. Already the seventh highest in the nation,
NewYork’s community college tuition rose again this year
to help fill ever-worsening multibillion-dollar state revenue
shortfalls that also have resulted from the deep recession.
Tuition at the four-year SUNY schools spiked by double digits.
More price hikes are likely.This at a time when nearly two
thirds of CUNY’s
community college
students come from
families earning less
than $30,000 a year.
Many are so poor
there’s a program to
help them register for
food stamps. One city
council member said
the tuition increase
would force at least
one in five to drop out.
But there are
plenty more waiting
to take their places.
Helping fuel the
enrollment surge at
CUNY and SUNY has been a record number of applicants
fromoutside the state—applicants, officials say, who have given
up on evenmore expensive private universities, and for whom
a public university education is still a comparative bargain.
Good thing, too, since the public universities are taking on so
December 2009
Overcrowded and Underfunded
New York’s public university systems, and beleaguered students, are an extreme example of national trends
many students largely because
they need the money from
tuition that each student
brings in. Plus, although the
subsidy is dropping, CUNY
and SUNY still get $2,675
from the state for every full-
time equivalent community
college student they sign
up. Like public universities
inmany states, they are
increasing both enrollment
and tuition to compensate for
falling state support.
What’s happening in
public higher education in
NewYork, whose dual public
university systems are the
nation’s second and third
largest (after the California
State University system), is
an extreme example of what’s
happening to public higher
education all over America.
Public universities are among
the first to be cut when
government revenues get tight, making state allocations and
tuition unpredictable and inconsistent, and shutting out poor
and, increasingly, middle-class students who don’t meet income
cutoffs for financial aid.
NewYork tends not to raise tuition when revenues are
steady, because that would trigger a dog-chasing-its-tail
increase in the cost of its self-adjusting state financial aid
program. But when times get tough, tuition rises sharply
anyway—28 percent in 1995, another 28 percent in 2003,
yet another 15 percent this year. Funding for public higher
education inNewYork “is like a drunken sailor lurching from
lamppost to lamppost,” one insider said. “The state waits till
things get really bad.Then, when no one can afford it, it raises
the price.”
There are other ways that problems inNewYorkmirror
those in other states—although, as with somany things, what
happens inNewYork seems that muchmore dramatic. At
a time of dwindling resources, some SUNY campuses are
chafing to expand and add attention-grabbing research, while
CUNY plans a research center that faculty say will shortchange
students in the name of institutional prestige.
Campuses are so overloaded that there aren’t enough seats
in required courses, meaning getting a degree takes longer—
costing students, and the state, still more. “That’s the last thing
hard-pressed NewYork families need right now—families who
New York’s tuition increases are nothing less than
a tax on students, critics say. “We call it the SUNY
tax,” says Maria Davila, a 21-year-old senior at SUNY
New Paltz.
Even as demand
soars, the state
allocations for CUNY
and SUNY budgets
have plummeted
by more than $400
million. Per-student
funding has declined
for four straight years.
Nathaniel Brooks, Black Star, for CrossTalk