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New York students rally for public higher ed investments

Students and advocates for public higher education rally at the New York State Capitol
Lucas Willard
Students and advocates for public higher education rally at the New York State Capitol

Student advocates gathered at the New York State Capitol in Albany to rally behind a New Deal for public higher education in the state.

With an April 1st budget deadline looming, advocates rallied on the Million Dollar Staircase Thursday, calling for a tuition freeze at the state’s public colleges and universities.

“Hey hey, ho ho. Tuition hikes have got to go!”

Governor Kathy Hochul’s 2024 budget proposes big investments for SUNY and CUNY campuses, including $1.5 billion for new capital projects, $270 million in new annual funding for campuses, and a half-billion dollar investment in a matching fund for contributions at SUNY’s four university centers.

But the plan also includes a system-wide tuition increase of 3 percent – 6 percent at Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook.

The administration says the increases are needed to ensure SUNY and CUNY schools are able to invest in their futures in a time of rising costs.

Student advocates say the tuition increases are the wrong idea – and are pushing for free tuition for all.

University at Albany student and SUNY Student Assembly Senior Director of Government Relations Joshua Chan said the so-called New Deal for public higher ed is especially important for immigrant families.

“Our immigrant families came here to give us a better life. Through the public education system with SUNY and CUNY, that’s possible. This budget must include free SUNY, free CUNY, higher TAP increases, and a higher Excelsior [Scholarship] increase as well,” said Chan. “Because those are the mechanisms that promote freedom and liberty across New York State.”

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program covers tuition for qualifying students at SUNY and CUNY schools, but not college-related expenses like room and board – making financial aid still necessary for many.

Ronald Jean-Claude Jr., a Haitian immigrant, spoke about the difficulty he faced in securing financial aid while he was attending community college in Queens.

“I experienced first-hand the struggles that many students face. I had to balance my studies with a job in security, and it was a challenging to find time and meet with advisors. Although I was eligible for financial aid, I had to appeal three times to receive it. This experience made me realize that we need a New Deal for CUNY.”

Sonya Concepcion, a SUNY Cortland student and member of the New York Public Interest Research Group, wants investments in public higher ed to improve student services.

“This issue is really important to me. My first semester, I almost failed out because I didn’t have the mental health services provided for me at SUNY Cortland. There’s only two mental health counselors for all 6,000 of us,” said Concepcion.

The $4.7 billion New Deal for Higher Education has bipartisan support.

Queens Senator Toby Ann Stavisky is Chair of the State Senate Committee on Higher Education. The Democrat touted the legacy of the former New York Governor and President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era economic policy.

“And I’m here today to support the New Deal. Ninety years ago, Franklin Roosevelt took office and put people back to work, put money on the table to buy food. That is what we have to remember because the students are overburdened. The full-time faculty is going down,” said Stavisky.

Long Island Assemblymember Doug Smith, the ranking Republican on the Assembly’s Education Committee, joined the rally. Smith spoke about the university systems’ reliance on adjunct instructors – positions that don’t pay as much as full-time professors.

“We have full-time problems in society that require full-time faculty. Why on earth do we have talented teachers that have to cobble together a schedule at five different campuses just to get by?” asked Smith.

Democratic Queens Senator John Liu hinted at the New Deal for Higher Education being included in the mix during budget negotiations, with the legislature’s budget proposals almost ready.

“We’re gonna keep up the fight, and I think, because of all of you being here, we’re going to see some pretty good news in our one-house next week,” said Liu.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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