Crucial CUNY programs on the chopping block in NYC budget

CUNY programs that reconnect college dropouts with their studies, offer academic support, and provide parenting students with child care are facing cutbacks in the city’s preliminary budget, officials and faculty said at a hearing on higher education Tuesday.

City Council members and advocates said the loss of those programs could actually cost the city more money than it is saving, if students who need the support abandon their degrees and enrollment continues to plummet.

“We’re cutting a few bucks, but we’re losing more money because we’re not investing in these programs,” said Councilman Eric Dinowitz (D-Bronx), who chairs the higher education committee.

CUNY faces tens of millions in cuts under Mayor Adams’ recent plan to eliminate budget shortfalls, while the community colleges alone have lost more than $130 million in tuition revenue since the pandemic, officials said. Enrollment has fallen by more than 10% over the past couple of years.

“CUNY has received funding for some mandatory costs such as fringe benefits, building rentals, collective bargaining, which are very helpful,” said Hector Batista, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at CUNY, “but these reductions are significant, unsustainable in the long term.”

Some CUNY students are also facing the possibility of tuition increases under Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to authorize increases by the lesser of 3% or an inflation index for higher education.

The proposal, supported by both the CUNY and State University of New York chancellors, was pushed back against in budget resolutions Tuesday by the state Senate, while the Assembly proposed $65 million in additional operating dollars in lieu of the hikes.

At the city level, a program that helps students finish their degrees on time is currently not included in the preliminary budget, CUNY confirmed. Officials cited a study that by helping students graduate quicker, they are actually saving money — but those rehires have been put on pause.

Another initiative that re-enrolls college students who left before graduation received one-time funding of $4.4M last year, but was not put forward by Mayor Adams. The program has boosted enrollment by more than 16,000 students — and with them, their tuition dollars. Council Speaker Adrienne Adams confirmed the program is a priority of hers in the State of the City last week.

“I think it’s fiscally irresponsible if we are losing students,” said Councilwoman Shahana Hanif (D-Brooklyn). “We really need to focus on restoring CUNY... and anchor it in ways that support it for generations to come.”

Other popular programs facing cutbacks include a $1.7 initiative where CUNY students are paid to tutor local public school kids, as well as child care programs at risk of losing $600,000 in funding, CUNY officials and faculty confirmed.

“It’s penny-wise, and pound foolish,” said James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY faculty and staff union. “It’s really, actually, an enormous deterrent to supporting those very students who we want to see come back to the classroom. We’re going to lose them frankly to the University of Phoenix and these other online universities out of convenience’s sake.”

And while the administration says that more than 150 positions cut from the budget are vacant and not student-facing, that claim was called into doubt. The Professional Staff Congress testified that 211 pedagogical staff would be eliminated in addition to 128 already lost through attrition.

“We’re being told one thing by OMB, from the city,” said Dinowitz, the committee chair. “But the people who are actually doing the work, doing the hiring, and supporting our CUNY system are telling us it’s just not the case. And with these cuts, you will have to either not rehire or cut pedagogical staff.”

The Adams administration Tuesday maintained that it works with CUNY to find savings that do not lead to layoffs or reduced services. Their plan also leaves CUNY with 174 vacancies to hire for “critical positions,” and the city could work with them to increase capacity if the university system reaches that limit.

Officials added that Adams is also rolling out new initiatives to support CUNY, including career programs for tens of thousands of students in nursing and technology.

“Every agency has been asked to achieve savings in response to fiscal and economic conditions, including more than $4 billion in asylum seeker costs by next year, funding labor settlements with our workforce, and budget cuts and costs shifts from the state,” said City Hall spokesman Jonah Allon, “but we remain committed to supporting the CUNY system and advancing its role as the ‘great equalizer’ for our city.”

A final budget is due by July 1.