State Legislation Seeks to Make CUNY Tuition-Free

by Rachel Zhang and Lauren Hakimi

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Karines Reyes introduced legislation on Friday that, if passed, would make CUNY tuition-free for in-state undergraduate students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. The New Deal for CUNY, as it’s called, would also require that CUNY hire more mental health counselors, academic advisors and full-time faculty.

As of now, tuition is $6,930 per year at senior colleges and $4,800 per year at community colleges for full-time in-state students, though between the federal Pell grant and state scholarship programs, most students already receive financial aid that covers at least part of that; according to the university’s website, two-thirds of undergraduate students attend CUNY tuition-free. 

Under the New Deal for CUNY, any tuition not covered by grants and scholarships would be paid for by the state in the form of a tuition reimbursement. If, however, a student fails to complete their courses for a semester, they would not be eligible for the tuition reimbursement.

The proposed bill requires CUNY to increase the number of academic advisors over the course of three years, with an ultimate goal of one advisor per every 600 students. The bill would also increase the number of full-time mental health counselors to one per every 1,000 students, a standard determined by the International Accreditation of Counseling Services. Currently, CUNY schools average one full-time mental health counselor per every 2,700 students.

Under this plan, CUNY will also hire more faculty members over the course of 4 years, with an ultimate goal of 65 full-time faculty members per every 1,000 students. Current adjunct professors will be prioritized for the new full-time positions.

If the legislation passes, the increases in staffing will begin in the 2022-2023 academic year.

Brooklyn College Boylan Hall
Brooklyn College Boylan Hall. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The New Deal for CUNY also includes investment in CUNY infrastructure and higher pay for adjunct professors. Starting in 2022, the state’s annual budget would include funding for all capital (long-term) projects considered to be “critical maintenance needs” for CUNY and SUNY, as determined by each university. 

Adjuncts, who are currently paid between $4,500 and $9,500 per course, would be paid comparably to lecturers depending on their hours, duties and level of responsibility. 

The legislation, whose name echoes the New Deal of Great Depression-era president Franklin D. Roosevelt, would cost about $6.67 billion over 5 years, according to the activist group CUNY Rising Alliance. But Gounardes, a Hunter graduate, says people shouldn’t think about the legislation in terms of cost.

“This is about investment,” Gounardes said at a launch event for the legislation. “Every dollar we invest in our education system pays enormous dividends on the outside. The more that we invest in our City University system, the more economic value we are creating.”

“This piece of legislation goes hand-in-hand with revenue raisers,” said Reyes. “That means raising revenue on the uber-rich in New York City and New York State so that we have the resources to fully fund CUNY.”

More than 20 other state legislators appeared at Friday’s launch event to express support for the bill.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who represents part of Manhattan, spoke about the time before 1976, when CUNY didn’t charge tuition. “My grandparents were all immigrants,” he said. “My mother was able to go to Hunter College, my father went to City College — why? Because they were free. And I’ve always understood that I would not be here were it not for the free education — the superb education — that they got.” 

Free tuition at CUNY ended in the 70s, when the city, which used to be responsible for funding CUNY, faced a major fiscal crisis. That’s when the state took control over the university system and began charging tuition.

Queens College graduate Khaleel Anderson, the youngest Black Assembly member in history, also supports the New Deal for CUNY. “This is our opportunity to build and create a new deal for a CUNY system that’s been forgotten about and left behind, to build and create opportunities for our young people, to expand institutions that put people to work,” he said.

At a town hall with union members and student-activists in December, CUNY Professional Staff Congress president Barbara Bowen said the Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature — the Senate and the Assembly — influenced the timing of the legislation. 

Supermajorities in the legislature mean that if the New Deal for CUNY passes, and then moderate Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoes it, Democrats can potentially override his veto — but that would require progressive and moderate legislators to band together in favor of the bill.

“We have to jump on that right now,” Bowen said of the supermajorities. “This is a year — this year and next — to say to them… it’s not enough to make CUNY a slogan, or say how much you love CUNY and you went there and your parents went there and all that. Fine. But what matters is, are you going to take the heat? Are you going to prioritize this when it counts, and when it hurts?”

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