Low- and middle-income students with stagnant family incomes are struggling to afford rising college costs. For them, higher education — the proven avenue that can lift students out of poverty and reduce income inequality — is becoming out of reach.
Income inequality is among the biggest threats to public higher education, and it's not just because cash-strapped students are asked to pay more and more tuition each year. Among other factors, college costs are rising because New York's highest earners pay less than their fair share of taxes and the state has flatlined funds to its public colleges and universities.
"Our most vulnerable students especially need the support services that help them achieve, and they need an education that is adequately funded, with uncrowded classrooms and a realistic full-time faculty-student ratio," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira.
NYSUT is taking every opportunity to reveal the effects of the wealth gap, through its major statewide awareness campaign, advocacy at the Capitol and partnerships with coalitions and student organizations.
Students are leaving college deeper in debt, with diminished career choices, limited access to graduate school and restricted social mobility. The Institute for College Access and Success estimates that 71 percent of students nationwide who earned bachelor's degrees in 2011-12 had student loans and carried an average debt of $29,400, compared with 68 percent and $23,450 four years earlier. At the same time, opportunities for graduating students to obtain employment continue to be limited. New York state's unemployment rate is 7.7 percent.
NYSUT's Public Higher Education Quality Initiative is asking lawmakers to fully invest in the City University of New York, the State University of New York and community colleges; to establish a full-time faculty and professional staff endowment; and to fully fund student financial aid and opportunity programs. The initiative is supported by a multimedia campaign asking lawmakers to "Keep New York a State of Mind."
The union is pressing lawmakers to ignore the governor's proposal for flat funding for public higher education; to fully fund mandatory costs at four-year campuses and to restore community college funding to 2008 levels. An agreement on the state budget is due April 1.
Tuition increases speak to the struggle: Since 2003-04, SUNY state-operated campuses increased tuition 35 percent, by $1,520; at CUNY, the increase is 43 percent, by $1,730. Tuition at the two systems is $5,870 and $5,730, respectively.
Community college students have fared even worse in the past decade. Tuition rose 46 percent at SUNY community colleges, by $1,252; at CUNY, the increase was 50 percent, by $1,400. Students pay total tuition of $3,960 and $4,200, respectively.
"Underfunding SUNY tramples upon the very reason why SUNY was created — to ensure that each and every New York resident capable of earning a baccalaureate degree has access to that avenue of learning, regardless of affordability," said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at SUNY.
"If we want to tackle access, we have to tackle funding. Funding is an issue of race, gender and class," said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at CUNY.
Underfunding to financial aid and academic support programs also blocks access to college. The state-funded Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for SUNY and CUNY students and in-state resident students at private colleges has not been updated in 20 years. Poor, working adult students cannot use TAP if they earn more than $10,000 in net taxable income. Only one in three students eligible for SUNY's Educational Opportunity Program will be admitted, because of funding cuts.
The governor's budget would also eliminate funding for CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associates Program, which has increased retention and graduation rates at community colleges.