Opinion: The City’s Engine of Economic Mobility Needs a Kickstart

Opinion: The City’s Engine of Economic Mobility Needs a Kickstart
Brooklyn College. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

By Council Member Inez Barron, Chair of Committee on Higher Education and Council Member I. Daneek Miller, Chair of Committee on Civil Service and Labor

Last Friday, hundreds of Professional Staff Congress (PSC) members from the City University of New York (CUNY) and their allies rallied against proposed cuts to CUNY today ahead of the City Council’s Higher Education budget hearing. The Mayor calls his Executive Budget a ‘recovery budget for all of us.’  But his plan would cut $77 million that CUNY needs to educate its mostly low income, mostly Black and brown students, who live in the communities hardest hit by COVID and the recession. We call on our colleagues to stand with us to pursue a budget that fosters racial and economic justice. Now is the moment to recommit ourselves to meaningful, stable, recurring investment in CUNY.

CUNY plays an important role in fighting centuries of systemic racism and poverty.  Eighty-three percent of CUNY students are people of color and 35% are foreign-born. Half of CUNY undergraduates come from households with annual incomes below $30,000. Sixty-four percent of CUNY graduates are persons of color. CUNY is a lifeline and a proven economic engine – but it is struggling.

To fix the problem, the City Council must fight to restore the proposed $77 million cut for Fiscal Year 2022. If continued, these cuts will increase class size and reduce course offerings. In 2020, CUNY colleges laid off 2,000 adjuncts and left 500 full-time staff lines unfilled. These emergency measures cannot continue. Further, City budget cuts would reduce support for childcare, food insecurity programs, and remediation. The City and State have also received federal stimulus money; the cuts are unjustified and counterproductive.

Second, the Council must capitalize on this moment of national change and envision a new future for our City’s university system. Earlier this month, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced that it would introduce legislation to make higher education free for most Americans. In the meantime, New York can be a progressive leader in college accessibility. That’s why we call on the City to invest an initial $20 million to lay the foundation for a New Deal for CUNY.

The New Deal for CUNY would begin to establish appropriate ratios of mental health counselors, academic advisors, and full-time faculty to students, all of which are critical for retention and graduation. It would also ease the tuition burden and move CUNY closer to the tuition-free model that prevailed for more than a century. CUNY’s mission is to provide high-quality college education for all New Yorkers, but it is unrealistic to think that can be achieved without sufficient resources. As the New Deal for CUNY legislation moves forward in Albany, the City can lead the way by providing a modest start on allocating funding to CUNY community colleges to move toward a New Deal.

Just months ago, the Comptroller stated, “CUNY is an engine of social mobility and must be at the heart of any plans for our recovery from the devastation of COVID-19. There is no economic recovery for New York without a strong and well-funded CUNY system.” These words can have meaning – if we write them into our budget priorities. In an economy that systematically denies opportunity to the poor and to people of color, CUNY offers a half-million New Yorkers a chance for an improved life. If New York is seriously committed to an equal recovery, we must invest in CUNY’s future.