Higher Education
January 28, 2020

HIGHER ED: Free tuition is NOT a free education

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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roberta elins
Caption: Roberta Elins, president of United College Employees of FIT and chair of the council, says that the state’s Excelsior tuition program is not a free education “because kids can’t afford the fees, or they can’t afford their textbooks, or they can’t afford dinner... There’s a fee for everything. They charge these students to breathe.” Pictured with Elins: NYSUT President Andy Pallotta (left) and UUP President Fred Kowal Photo by Ned Hoskin.

Higher education is center stage, literally, during this time of presidential debates, battles over federal and state funding, and efforts to lift the blanket of student debt smothering the country’s future.

Elected officials “are tripping over themselves to address student debt and college affordability,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten at a meeting of the NYSUT Higher Ed Policy Council in New York City, “but they are not investing in higher ed.”

Gov. Cuomo’s executive budget proposal is a good example.

“The governor’s budget simply does not provide the support that we need,” said Roberta Elins, president of United College Employees of FIT and chair of the council. “It’s an austerity budget that is not based in the reality of what it takes to provide high quality education to our students.

“It’s not just tuition,” she said. “There’s a fee for everything. They charge these students to breathe.” Every student faces athletics fees — even if they don’t play sports — technology fees, health fees, registration fees, and many more mandatory expenses.

The state’s Excelsior tuition program is not a free education, she said, “because kids can’t afford the fees, or they can’t afford their textbooks, or they can’t afford dinner.”

Carmel Nicoletti teaches art and design at Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College, where the school has eliminated all funding for basic, essential supplies in her subject area.

“Art and design students can’t afford the materials,” she said. “I’m buying materials for them because I know they can’t succeed without it. … Also food! We have food for the students because we know they can’t afford it.”

It’s a major obstacle to success, and access, Weingarten said.

“A kid in New York City public schools gets free transportation and meals,” she said. “As soon as they go to CUNY, that goes away. That’s $500 or $1,000 a month in expenses” that can prevent them from going to college.

The 2020–21 executive budget proposal does not address the need for increased support to CUNY, SUNY, the community colleges and the SUNY hospitals, said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. Gov. Cuomo proposes essentially the same funding as last year. The proposal does nothing to bridge the TAP gap, which requires campuses to eat the difference between Tuition Assistance Program grants and the actual costs of tuition.

“We’re in for the fight of our lives,” Pallotta said. “We did a lot of work to elect new people in power in the Senate, and we have some really great people on our side,” he said. Now that they are in, however, we need to ensure they honor their pledges to support public education and resist the governor’s moves to prioritize privatization and charter schools.

“We have to move the leadership,” he said. The Assembly speaker wants to raise revenue; the senate leader does not want to raise taxes. NYSUT’s proposal to boost revenue would not raise taxes on the vast majority of New Yorkers; it would simply require the ultrawealthy citizens of New York to pay a fair share.

Agreeing that “revenue is the only solution,” Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen said, “NYSUT needs to make sure the governor hears that higher education is our priority.”

UUP President Fred Kowal said it’s the same story every year in Albany, and “we have to do something different. UUP is planning major actions at campuses throughout the system.”

NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango applauded higher ed leadership’s contributions to the statewide “Take a Look at Teaching” initiative, and urged participation in upcoming Regents dialogues to examine secondary graduation requirements.

She announced that the NYSUT Higher Education Members of the Year for 2020 are Jamie Dangler of UUP and Mike Fabricant of the PSC. They will be honored at the Representative Assembly May 1–2 in Albany.

Facing a battle over the “crippling underfunding of higher ed,” DiBrango said, “I thank you for always being on the front lines for students under difficult conditions.”

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