Article I wrote for a SUNY Purchase College newspaper.
In March, the 2013-14 NY State budget was passed by legislature in Albany. Of its many components, it increases the minimum wage to $9 an hour over three years and gives local businesses several tax breaks including one to encourage the hiring of recent veterans, according to CBS New York’s website. The full list of services and agencies granted continued or increased funding is long, but according to education reform activists there is a glaring omission — funds to improve conditions for students of state colleges and universities.
On March 12, several education reform groups, including the Purchase College chapter of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), went to the state capital to demand reforms in education funding. Their objective for what was called Higher Education Action Day was to communicate to state law makers their concerns about the SUNY and CUNY school systems.
Teams, made up of SUNY and CUNY students, staff, and activists, asked the legislature for several reforms. Of their requests, one was for an increase in money to community colleges. Many of the lobbyists were students of community colleges, giving personal stories of the overcrowding and underfunding that mar their ability to learn in a safe, stress-free environment.
“There are places in my school where the walls and ceilings are crumbling,” said Lafeana Harris, 22, of Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).
According to NYPIRG’s official press release on the year’s budget proceedings, the agency’s case was only partially considered.
“While we are pleased that the budget includes an additional $150/FTE (aid for full-time students) in Base Aid for community colleges,” said Kevin Stump, NYPIRG’s Higher Education Program Coordinator, “these institutions are still receiving $443/FTE less (inflation adjusted) in Base Aid than they did in 2008-09.”
Also asked of law makers was improvement to the state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Specifically, they wanted an increase in award amounts for part-time and independent students; restoration of TAP funds to graduate students; to make TAP more flexible for students who may take longer than the standard two or four years to graduate or face an unexpected financial difficulty; and to protect student access to funds without reducing resources for state schools through tuition discounting.
“Don’t they realize that two year colleges actually have a six-year average graduation rate?” said Tiffany Brown of BMCC, referring to the current TAP graduation policy. Brown is also a member of NYPIRG and was one of the team captains during meetings with law makers.
“I’m planning on going to grad school one day and I’d like to know that there is aid for me,” said David Cusack-Johnson, 18, of Purchase College, referring to the discontinuation of TAP for grad students.
Lobbyists are disappointed that their requests for reform to TAP seem not to have been heeded.
“The years of public disinvestment have triggered tuition hikes,” said Brittany Bollenbach, a chairperson for NYPIRG and student at Purchase College, “which have consequently driven student loan debt to an all-time high. This perfect storm of decreased funding, increased costs, and more debt must be addressed by updating and fixing TAP to work for all New Yorkers.”
“For the first time, tuition exceeds TAP awards at SUNY schools,” said Stump. “SUNY tuition is expected to reach as much as $6,470 by 2016, while the average TAP award has stagnated at roughly $2,500 for the last 10 years.”
A third goal of the lobbyists that day was to ensure the passage of the NY DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. Its purpose was to provide TAP and other state-supported college access and opportunity programs to undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. by their parents as children and graduated NY high schools. Prior to Higher Ed Action Day, these students were ineligible for that kind of aid.
Things haven’t changed.
“Students across the state are disappointed that the Senate and the Governor did not join the Assembly in putting the New York State DREAM Act in this year’s budget,” said Kathleen Jordan, chair of NYPIRG’s Board of Directors and a student at Brooklyn College.
A group of senators known as the Senate Latino Conference voted against the entire budget bill due to the exclusion of the DREAM Act.
“The failure to include DREAM Act funding in the budget is a missed opportunity to bring these young Americans out of the shadows, allow them to earn an education, and make their parents proud,” said Senator Adriano Espaillat, Chair of the Senate Latino Caucus.