At the end of March, students on five CUNY campuses were given a few days’ notice to move out of their dorms so the buildings could be converted to medical facilities to treat the city’s skyrocketing number of COVID-19 patients. This came a few weeks after Governor Cuomo—one of the politicians instrumental in the reduction of New York hospital bed space by almost 30% over the last twenty years—assured students that housing would remain open for those who chose to stay on campus. The last-minute eviction orders caused chaos at the dorms, with students crowding into hallways and elevators as they scrambled to move out by the deadline. International and housing-insecure students with nowhere else to go were packed into the Queens College dorms, where administrators told them they could “only bring things you can pack into one or two bags.” Thousands of students have lost their jobs on and off campus but are being denied tuition refunds and in many cases are ineligible for the “stimulus checks” included in the latest federal relief bill. Meanwhile, a $200 tuition hike and a new $120 “wellness fee” are still in effect for the fall, and we can expect further increases in coming years. With the economy in free-fall, we must remember how the ruling class transferred the cost of the 2008-09 crisis onto students through the Predictable Tuition Policy.
State funding for CUNY dropped by $300 million between 2008 and 2011, as spending on public programs was cut across the board following the financial crisis. Alongside these drastic cuts, then-Governor Paterson introduced the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA), which would have allowed the CUNY Board of Trustees to hike tuition and privatize CUNY without legislative oversight. PHEEIA was rejected by the state legislature in 2010. In 2011, however, the Predictable Tuition Policy was passed under Governor Cuomo’s tenure, authorizing the Board to raise tuition by up to $300 every year for five years. The bill was disguised as an attempt to eliminate unpredictable tuition hikes and help students and their families plan for the cost of a college education. Beneath its benevolent cloak, however, the policy is nothing more than a legal confirmation of a long-term trend: the commodification of higher education through shrinking state funding and ever-rising tuition costs. The vote to approve the hike is a mere formality—it passes unanimously year after year.
Under the Predictable Tuition Policy, tuition for senior colleges jumped from $4,800 to $6,330 and from $3,600 to $4,800 for community colleges between 2011 and 2016. In 2017, the policy was renewed for another five years, and Cuomo paraded out his Excelsior program, an insufficient and restrictive last-dollar attempt to create the appearance of an affordable CUNY system—incidentally, this was the same year the Board of Trustees voted to increase maximum salaries for top administrators. Since the inauguration of Excelsior, full-time enrollment has skyrocketed at schools already stretched thin for resources. Tuition grows ever higher, per-student spending decreases, buildings crumble, and students are locked out of classes necessary for their majors—often preventing them from meeting the strict graduation requirements stipulated by Excelsior. Students wait months to book appointments with mental health services, rats and raccoons run rampant through the halls, and students are charged more and more each year for the privilege. The ruling class offers pennies like Excelsior with one hand and robs with the other.
As the bourgeois political establishment positions him as a hero for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, we must not forget that Cuomo and his ilk have systematically gutted CUNY along with other public services. The governor packs the Board of Trustees with his own lackeys who carry out austerity policies on his behalf. His budget director Robert Mujica, for example, sits on both the CUNY and MTA boards, cutting state funding for public colleges while voting through increased tuition rates. Since 2011, state aid for CUNY has barely kept pace with inflation, and Cuomo has blocked the mildest of reforms. He has consistently vetoed policies like an enhanced Maintenance of Effort bill that would require the state to cover necessary growth in school operating budgets, such as salary increases for teachers or facilities improvements. In addition, he has stopped state aid from being used to close the TAP Gap—the difference between actual tuition costs and grants from the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides financial aid to New York State residents. As this gap widens, individual CUNY schools are forced to dip into their operating budgets to award additional grants to students with financial need. In turn, this strain on the schools’ budgets necessitates further tuition hikes.
Though Cuomo has blocked even modest reforms, the crisis at CUNY is not simply a result of his negligence, incompetence, or ill will. Predictable Tuition is not merely the bad policy of an individual politician or even a particular party. Rather, it codifies the pre-existing trend of rising tuition costs and perpetuates the separation of working people from education and scientific knowledge, a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. Policies like this erect barriers to the education of the whole people, thus reinforcing the dominance of the capitalist class. Introduced by a Democratic Governor, the Predictable Tuition Policy was backed by Republicans, who even stalled CUNY budget discussions to force the policy through the state assembly in 2011. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are united around the political project of maintaining capitalism, even if they often have different visions of how to accomplish this goal.*
In economic crises, the political establishment tightens its belt, enacting austerity to hand off costs to the working class. As the current crisis deepens, the state will intensify its efforts to gut funding for public education and impose even more drastic tuition hikes. Students must prepare now to fight back against these inevitable attacks. Politicians will not vote in a free CUNY, no matter how many petitions are created. Sending buses of students to lobby Albany will not change the fact that education under capitalism is, and always will be, rigged against the working masses. Partial reforms are not enough—students must struggle for a fundamental transformation of the educational system to provide free and public higher education for the whole people.
*The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Governor Paterson was a Republican.