MIDTOWN MANHATTAN — After expanding a program that allows students at the city’s 24 public colleges and universities to attend tuition-free, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo faced intensifying criticism on Thursday for a tuition increase approved by a state board whose members he appointed.
The seemingly contradictory situation of free tuition and a tuition hike was explained and criticized by City University of New York students at a protest outside of Cuomo’s Manhattan office.
“The Excelsior Scholarship requires that you finish within four years,” said protester Elisa Crespo, a student at John Jay College, referring to the New York State program that provides full tuition for students who qualify.
According to CUNY’s own literature, Crespo was correct, regarding four-year colleges. Two-year colleges also require tuition-free students to be enrolled full-time over the course of two years.
Forty percent of students at CUNY two-year colleges attend part-time, according to the college’s statistics and are therefore ineligible for the Excelsior tuition-free program. At CUNY four-year campuses, about a third of students attend part time, according to the university system.
It also reports that almost half of its community college, or two-year, students are from families whose income is less than $20,000. A third of CUNY’s four-year students’ families have incomes below the $20,000 line.
Couple that with the high rate of part-time attendance, combined with the recently approved $200 per year tuition spike, and the result, as seen in Thursday’s protest, is frustration.
“Two hundred dollars can really mean between choosing [staying in school] and rent, or groceries for the month,” said Maxwell Burke, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
He was at the protest, which also attracted students frustrated with what they called declining facilities and support systems at CUNY campuses.
“Tuition is stil going up,” said student protester Hussein Abdul, but “resources are still being cut, so I came today to say, ‘Fund our schools.'”
For its part, Governor Cuomo’s office made a statement regarding the situation.
“Governor Cuomo is a national champion for college affordability and has increased funding for CUNY by nearly $500 million since 2012,” said spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays.
“We capped [tuition] increases to protect students and their families from years of unpredictable tuition hikes,” Crampton-Hays said. “Even with these modest increases, CUNY tuition is among the lowest in the nation and thanks to the Governor’s first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship program and generous tuition assistance from the state, only 12 percent of CUNY students pay full tuition, and over two-thirds attend entirely tuition-free. We are proud of our record and committed to providing a high quality, affordable college education to all New York students.”
That analysis, student protesters said, was contradictory to what they observe on their campuses, with their large numbers of part-time students, as well as students who are undocumented.
CUNY says it welcomes undocumented students. However, according to the state’s requirements, for students to be eligible for tuition-free educations, they must be U.S. citizens.
“Undocumented students don’t qualify for financial aid,” said student protester Krishna Fnu. “They have to pay from their pocket.”
He called the tuition increase a hardship for them, and for him. So did student protester Crespo, who said that costs left her no choice but to not carry a full-credit course load.
“With the rising cost of transportation, and housing, and books, and all those things, we simply can’t afford to go to CUNY anymore, and it’s supposed to be affordable,” she said. “The [tuition-free] system needs reform.”