We Asked Mayoral Candidates About CUNY. Here’s What They Said.

by Lauren Hakimi, Rachel Zhang and Jada Shannon

Update: This article was updated to reflect candidate Scott Stringer’s differing statements on making CUNY tuition-free.

Later this year, New Yorkers will get to rank five mayoral candidates in the primary elections, one of whom will succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio as the city’s chief executive. They have a diverse set of options. 

But with primary elections just a couple of months away, candidates for mayor have rarely been asked to share their plans for the nation’s largest urban public university, CUNY.

This is partly because CUNY is mostly run and funded by the state, not the city. Even so, the mayor has some influence on the university, especially community colleges.

The next mayor, alongside the City Council, will negotiate the budget for CUNY community colleges, tuition assistance programs like CUNY ASAP, food pantries and more. The mayor will also be able to appoint five members to the CUNY board of trustees, the university’s governing body. The mayor can also advocate for CUNY to receive funding from the state and federal governments.

Six major mayoral candidates responded to The Envoy’s survey. Photos from Wikimedia Commons, rayformayor.com, shaunfornyc.com, Scott Heins, kgfornyc.com, Win McNamee/Getty Images, dianne.nyc. Photo illustration by Marissa Cronin

In order to understand mayoral candidates’ plans for CUNY, The Envoy sent a survey to all candidates. The Envoy did not reach out to candidates who had very little or no information available online, and it only reached out to people registered with the NYC Campaign Finance Board as of mid-January.

The Envoy asked candidates whether CUNY should be tuition-free and where CUNY should receive its funding. The Envoy also asked how candidates would expand job opportunities for CUNY students and help students who are struggling with mental illness, housing insecurity or food insecurity. Lastly, The Envoy asked candidates how they’d decide who to appoint to the board of trustees.* 

Most major mayoral candidates completed the survey, including former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who is the frontrunner, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The Envoy also received responses from former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, former NYC Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales and several lesser-known candidates.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and civil rights attorney Maya Wiley did not respond. City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca and former NYC veterans affairs commissioner Loree Sutton responded, but have since dropped out of the mayoral race; their responses are not included in this article.

Below are major takeaways from the candidates’ responses. Readers can also access the complete responses here

Funding and the Cost of Tuition

CUNY is at a crossroads. According to a 2019 report from New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, per-student state funding for CUNY has effectively dropped 18% in the past decade. Meanwhile, tuition has increased by around $300 every year. The next mayor could play an important role in changing this trend, and in addressing high rates of food and housing insecurity among students.

Currently, senior colleges are largely funded by the state government, with less than half of the funding coming from the city. Community colleges are mainly funded by the city, in addition to student tuition. 

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, the Excelsior program and the Tuition Assistance Program, most students already receive financial aid that covers at least some of their tuition; according to the university’s website, two-thirds of undergraduate students attend CUNY tuition-free. 

The candidates’ positions as stated to The Envoy. Photos from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons and Kathryn Garcia. Table by Marissa Cronin

Morales says she’d work to make tuition at CUNY free for all. She expressed support for the New Deal for CUNY, a bill currently in the state legislature that would make tuition free for all in-state undergraduate students. 

Stringer told The Envoy that he thinks CUNY community colleges should be tuition-free, but didn’t indicate that he’d support free senior college. He did, however, express his support for the New Deal for CUNY to the university’s union, which endorsed him. “Together, we’ll deliver a New Deal for CUNY,” the union quotes Stringer as saying. He also indicated his support for making CUNY tuition-free in a March tweet.

Yang did not offer detailed plans for CUNY funding except to say that he’d advocate for CUNY at the state level. In a call with CUNY student-activists, Yang talked about advocating for CUNY funding at the federal level. He did not outline any steps he’d take through the city government in the questionnaire or in the call.

Donovan plans to build on the NYS Excelsior scholarship by expanding the free tuition benefits to part-time students. At Hunter College, part-time students are more likely to be Black or Hispanic students and non-traditional students, according to the school’s 2019 factbook. They also receive less funding through TAP and are currently not eligible for the Excelsior scholarship. 

Donovan’s main plan is his “Equity Bonds proposal,” through which every child will receive $1,000-2,000 a year, plus interest, in a city-administered savings account. With up to $50,000 allocated for every child, this plan will make college more affordable, according to Donovan.

Donovan also emphasized his connections to the Biden administration, which he would leverage to advocate for the city.

Garcia, like Donovan and other candidates, emphasizes assistance for non-tuition costs like books, transportation and housing. She did not propose any changes in funding or tuition for CUNY’s senior colleges, but indicated that she would reduce tuition for community college students who “need it most.”

McGuire wants to fundraise by partnering with corporate employers, in addition to advocating for more state funding and expanding existing programs, specifically Associate’s degree programs and the Excelsior scholarship. 

Expanding employment opportunities for CUNY students

Partnering with the private sector and creating green jobs were the most popular ideas among candidates. Donovan said he would create an NYC Climate Corps to work on clean energy and resilience projects, while Morales proposed a municipal level jobs guarantee based on a green jobs agenda. Morales indicated that recruiting for these jobs would prioritize CUNY students and graduates.

In addition to the NYC Climate Corps, Donovan pitched an Education Recovery Corps to employ CUNY students to support the “social-emotional” recovery of the city’s public school students from the pandemic. Donovan also plans to launch a learning center that puts students, professors and educators together to create opportunities centered around “21st century skills” such as life sciences and climate adaptation.

McGuire and Garcia call for more collaboration with the private sector, particularly through aligning curricula to the needs of employers. “I would engage employers in an innovative, partnership-based approach that asks them to participate in curriculum development and training, so that companies have an incentive to commit to hiring CUNY grads who are best prepared for the jobs they offer,” Garcia said.

Unlike Garcia’s, McGuire’s plan to partner with private companies includes securing funding for the university and focuses on the technology, computer science and management fields.

Stringer proposes a universal paid internship program, increasing apprenticeships and subsidized wage programs. He also proposed a CUNY Tech Corps to “support small businesses.”

The essential part of Yang’s plan does not revolve around CUNY; rather, it involves convincing companies to stay in New York. He expressed a need for “pipelines” that funnel CUNY talent to local employers, but doesn’t specify how to build the system, or what fields it would focus on.

Mental health care and wellness support

A 2015 Healthy CUNY survey found that more than 18% of undergraduate CUNY students aged 18-30 were suffering from depression and 20% from anxiety. Many of these students reported thoughts of suicide in the last year. Most of them had not visited the counseling centers at their schools in the previous year, and some didn’t even know whether their schools had such centers. Candidates expressed sympathy for students experiencing mental health challenges, especially during the pandemic, but few had concrete plans to address the issue.

Morales supports the New Deal for CUNY plan to meet a minimum ratio of 1 counselor per 1,000 students. According to the activist organizations CUNY PSC and CUNY Rising Alliance, CUNY currently has 1 mental health counselor per 2,700 students. “Healthcare as a right for all New Yorkers must include evidence based holistic and inclusive mental health services,” Morales said.

Garcia says she would “work with CUNY to develop an integrated system-wide mental health service, expanding upon the current wellness centers on campuses.” A system like this could mean that if a student transferred from one CUNY college to another, their new college would have access to mental health information from the original college. It could also allow students to access services at campuses other than their own.

Garcia also said she supports investment in virtual care and telehealth services at New York City’s public hospitals, services CUNY is also expanding for its students. Stringer said the city should create partnerships between CUNY, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and nonprofit healthcare providers. 

McGuire supports making mental health support accessible for students and faculty. He also calls for faculty to receive training in “trauma-informed instruction.” 

Addressing food and housing insecurity

CUNY students have historically suffered from high rates of food and housing insecurity. 

During the pandemic, these rates have increased as roughly 40 percent of students have lost their jobs, according to testimony by CUNY provost José Luis Cruz at a June City Council hearing. Cruz said that nearly 18 percent of students have gone hungry and 55 percent of students faced housing insecurity at the beginning of the pandemic.

Many candidates propose cash relief. Yang pitches his plan to provide $2,000 per year to a select 500,000 New Yorkers. 

Garcia calls for emergency grants for students in need. She says she’d also pressure the state to extend SNAP benefits to all college students permanently. Currently, the program services community college students. She calls for expanding eligibility for reduced fare MetroCards to mitigate other financial barriers to college retention. 

Morales prioritizes “direct community food production.” She would invest in community urban gardens, food upcycling and education for minority farmers. She also suggests connecting students who suffer from food insecurity to mutual aid organizations.

To combat housing insecurity, Garcia and McGuire propose connecting students to rental assistance programs. Morales plans on assessing student housing needs and renovating dorms where necessary. She addresses the housing problem on a broader scale, detailing strategies for creating affordable, community-owned housing citywide. Donovan also pitches his plan for increasing affordable housing. 

Stringer, Donovan and McGuire prioritize improving systems of information sharing to educate CUNY students about resources available to them. According to a 2019 Healthy CUNY survey, few students access SNAP, WIC, food pantries and other assistance because they are not aware of those resources and aren’t sure if they qualify for them.

The CUNY board of trustees

The CUNY board of trustees is the governing body of the university. The 16 people who make up the board can vote on whether or not tuition should be raised, whether classes should be remote or in-person, and other important things. They also make decisions about the university’s finances and real estate.

The mayor nominates five appointees to the CUNY board of trustees, while the governor nominates nine. The chairperson of the University Student Senate and the chairperson of the University Faculty Senate also serve on the board.

Asked how they’d decide who to appoint, candidates emphasized diversity, skills and input from students and staff. Garcia and Stringer intend to appoint people who graduated from CUNY. McGuire plans to appoint people with “an understanding of the private sector and broad employment trends” to expand job opportunities for CUNY students. 

Morales, condemning trustees’ past votes to raise tuition, plans to choose appointees “in full support of making CUNY free again.” CUNY stopped being free in the 1970s when the city faced a fiscal crisis.

CUNY serves more than 275,000 degree-seeking students. According to the university, more than 80% of students stay in the city after they graduate, making CUNY an important part of the city’s economy — and, as some candidates pointed out in their responses, an important part of the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession. 

But it’s up to the mayor, the governor, local legislators and other stakeholders to determine whether and how the university will uphold its status as an institution that helps working-class people, many of them minorities and immigrants, break into the middle class. For now, as many students face food and housing insecurity and struggle to pay ever-increasing tuition, the future of the so-called “jewel” of a university remains uncertain. 

*The Envoy also included a question about CUNY ASAP before realizing a flaw in the premise of the question; we have removed this question from all of the candidates’ surveys.

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