Halfway through a Thursday afternoon at City College, as students waited in the coffee line in the North Academic Center, a wave of sobs descended from upstairs.
Dressed in black, holding a giant cardboard gravestone, a group of student activists were mourning “the death of higher education,” circling through the building and outside.
“We are here today to eulogize our free education,” Carlos Pazmino, 22, wearing a suit and tie for the occasion, told passersby. “It saddens me to say that our free education is dead.”
Pazmino has joined Students for Educational Rights, one of several City College groups protesting the school’s tuition increases.
As Pazmino explained in a speech at the rally, City College began as an experiment in 1847 to provide a free education “for the sons and the daughters of the lower and middle class of that time.”
As the first public college in New York and the nation’s premier tuition-free university, City College remained tuition-free for over 100 years before it began charging students in 1976. As the school rose in national rankings—it’s now recognized by The Princeton Review as a top school—its tuition rose as well.
According to the College Board, City College’s full-time tuition totals $5,130 for in-state students, plus $13,180 for room & board. Though the amount pales in comparison to the pricey tuition at New York University ($43,204) or Columbia University ($47,246), members of Students for Educational Rights, and other campus groups, argue that their university began as a way to educate a different demographic.
“It was free through the Great Depression, which was the worst economic hardship this country has ever seen,” said Shaila Bora, 26, a sophomore philosophy major. “It was free during two world wars. And now there’s a downturn of the economy and all of a sudden, it seems they prioritize other things over education.”
Last year the Board of Trustees agreed to legislation that would raise tuition up to $300 a year for five years at City College, as well as other CUNY and SUNY campuses. Administrators promised the funds would directly boost university resources.
“I want to assure every New Yorker that we pledge to make good on their investment,” said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher when the legislation passed. “Every new tuition dollar will be reinvested in creating the best possible education experience for our students, including protecting and enhancing programs, allowing for smaller class sizes, and better preparing students.”
Cooper Union, another university which began with a vision of free tuition, has continued to offer every student a full scholarship since its founding in 1859. Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha last year acknowledged the school’s financial struggles, but tuition remains free.
“Cooper Union is going through a very heavily engaged, thoughtful process where faculty are preparing plans to be submitted and reviewed by the President and Board of Trustees, and will secure our path of financial stability,” said Cooper Union spokeswoman Jolene Travis.
City College protestors, meanwhile, remain underwhelmed with university resources, like limited library hours.
“We need to actually see the numbers because there’s something not right,” said Pazmino in an interview. “Our Board of Trustees are getting paid bigger salaries and they’re raising our tuition, and instead of actually hiring more teachers and bringing a more prolific investment from our tuition hikes, we’re getting less administrators and less teachers. We’re getting a really sour deal on our education in general.”
CUNY’s communications director, Michael Arena, denied that administrators had received salary increases.*
“There are no raises,” Arena said. “Most full-time undergraduates [throughout CUNY] attend tuition free thanks to our safety net. Many others are eligible for a $2500 tax credit, which is a big deal for us because tuition is so affordable.” Part-time students, he added, are not eligible for the same financial aid policy. Arena also said the increased tuition contributes to more hiring and new campus construction.
In a June 25 letter to CUNY chair Benno Schmidt, current CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein wrote that he wanted “to reiterate that no salary increases for any individuals under the Executive Compensation Plan are being proposed.”
“We are committed to keeping City College affordable to all of our students while providing a world-class education that delivers an exceptional value,” City College spokesman Ellis Simon said in email. “The gradual tuition increases that the CUNY Board of Trustees instituted are necessary at this point in time to continue to improve the education experience at City College.
“Three-quarters of our students receive full or partial financial aid, and almost 60 percent pay no tuition,” Simon said.
“I have $10,500 in student loans,” said Alyssia Osorio, 21, a junior political science major, during the rally. When City College accepted her, she said, she was excited to have affordable tuition and worked 60 hours a week to pay the costs. “When I heard about the tuition increases, I realized my dream was no longer affordable for me, that I couldn’t go on going to school part time, working full time, and getting good grades,” she said. “It just wasn’t possible. So I started an application for a Stafford Loan.”
“Who in this school works?” Bora said during the rally. “I do.” A full-time load of 15 credits, she said, amounted to more hours than a full-time job. “And on top of it, we have to work,” she went on. “And for what? You work a minimum wage job full time when you’re in school, you’re left with $300 a month to pay rent, feed your children, to take care of your family, to take care of yourself.”
Similar sentiments were expressed at the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, where Domingo Estevez, a City College student and member of Students United For a Free CUNY, a city-wide activist group, spoke to the crowd in Zuccotti Park. He also noted the salaries of City College administrators and the CUNY chancellor, whom he called “part of the one percent.” In 2010 The New York Times reported Goldstein’s total compensation package as over $600,000.
Students United For a Free CUNY formed last year in reaction to the newly-imposed tuition increases. Though the group has expanded its mission to other student concerns, its immediate goal is to fight higher tuition.
Though the new tuition policy continues, the groups remain passionate.
“I really do believe that everyone has the right to access education,” Bora said after the rally. “My education is not a business.”
*The Uptowner mistakenly referred to Michael Arena as a spokesman for City College; he is a representative from CUNY.