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Students, professors raise alarm about funding cuts to SUNY, CUNY

SUNY and CUNY professors and students gather to advocate for more aid to the higher education systems at the Empire State Plaza on February 28, 2024.
Alexander Babbie
SUNY and CUNY professors and students gather to advocate for more aid to the higher education systems at the Empire State Plaza on February 28, 2024.

With the state budget due in less than a month, students, professors and New York state lawmakers are pushing for more aid for the SUNY and CUNY systems.

Higher education advocates say Democratic New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s $233 billion budget proposal does not do enough to promote positive educational outcomes across the state. Speaking to a crowd of SUNY and CUNY professors and students at the state capitol in Albany, Assemblywoman Anna Kelles says the situation is dire.

“The base funding of CUNY colleges in 2019 was $453 million. You know what it is? flat. And this is- we're supposed to be thankful for this 417? 417, from 453? We have nine community colleges that are months away from being closed down told that they are not financially viable,” Kelles said.

The Southern Tier Democrat says a proposed $6 million cut to Higher Education Opportunity Programs and a $19 million decrease in funding for independent colleges would endanger educational opportunities.

United University Professions President Fred Kowal, a SUNY Cobleskill professor and WAMC commentator, agrees.

“What we'd like to see is $139 million directly allocated to the 18 campuses in SUNY, the state-operated campuses, that have deficits right now. Last year, there was money put into the budget; record amounts that could have been used to solve the deficits that the Cuomo budgets created. The Chancellor decided to go a different route,” Kowal said.

Kowal says program cuts would also harm the local economies that have formed around campuses.

He says he doesn’t believe Governor Hochul understands the situation she inherited from former Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat.

“You can't just say, ‘well, we'll have one good budget,’ and that's it. And SUNY lost over $7 billion, controlling for inflation, since 2008 and the Great Recession. That’s not going to be overcome by a budget that improves things by a couple of hundred million, you've got to invest in these institutions,” Kowal said.

UUP is a WAMC underwriter.

On the CUNY side, David Gerwin, who chairs Queens College’s Secondary Education Department, says a $180,000 budget shortfall to his program threatens his ability to run student teaching in the fall.

“If you run a section of seven students with one supervisor, so that person can make 28 visits to a bunch of different schools, that's $6,000 per section, and I need to run for 200 students, I need to run about 30 sections. So that ends up costing $180,000. Which is why if I'm short $180,000, I have to choose between full student teaching in the spring alone, or trying to find some way to make fall and spring work,” Gerwin said.

Students say they’re feeling the crunch as well.

Lisa Estany is double majoring in anthropology and media studies with a philosophy minor at SUNY Purchase.

“We need better quality classrooms. And I don't know, we need more money so that we can get more enrollment up. We can get better teachers, there's so limited teachers in every department. It's been a real struggle. Teachers are overworked, they're underpaid. They're advising 10, 20, 30 students with no support,” Estany said.

Estany adds there are shortfalls with accessibility as well, saying dorms, which were built in the 1960s and 70s, are not suitable for students who need additional accommodations.

“It's like a can of sardines.”

Aurorra Sikellianos is a first-year history major and says Purchase is pouring money into the wrong places.

“We have a president who's making seven figures, and most of our students are receiving TAP or Excelsior in some way. So it's interesting that it's a place that's serving underfunded students, supposedly, but a lot of people are struggling to even stay in school at this point, because TAP is, like, a joke. It's like $400, it makes no difference,” Sikellianos said.

Democratic Assemblywoman Monique Chandler-Waterman of Brooklyn’s 58th district says, as a CUNY grad and mother of four, navigating the aid system poses challenges for students and parents.

“You should be just focusing on your studies; not ‘how can I pay for school? Why is it so difficult? How am I going to eat? How am I going to get my books? How am I going to do this stuff?’ This is our future, the person that's going to cure whatever disease that’s not cured now is sitting here. It behooves to invest in you and making sure you can focus on the genes you are the person that you're going to be the scientists that you're going to be,” Chandler-Waterman said.

In a statement, a spokesperson says “Governor Hochul is fully committed to ensuring students have access to affordable, high quality public education and has increased investment in higher education by 17% since taking office. The Governor's Executive Budget builds on these investments to SUNY and CUNY with $1.2 billion in new capital funding and $207 million in operating funding. We will continue working with the Legislature on a budget that serves the needs of all New Yorkers."

SUNY Purchase declined to comment, referring a request from WAMC to SUNY Central, which also declined to comment.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.