Students on various SUNY campuses have been taking action in the hopes that the state will hear their concerns about student debt and tuition increases.
In 2011, Gov. Cuomo passed NYSUNY 2020 legislation to implement a “rational tuition plan,” which has increased SUNY and CUNY tuition by $300 every year for the last five years to go toward investing in the institution, and now it is up for renewal.
Cuomo’s proposal for the new budget, released in January, included another round of NYSUNY 2020. This ignited a SUNY student movement to influence the governor and the state Senate and Assembly as they negotiate a final draft of the budget, which is due to be completed April 1.
The organization that began the conversations to provoke this movement was New York Students Rising chapter at SUNY New Paltz, which is a “statewide network of students and campus organizations dedicated to defending public higher education and empowering students in New York State,” according to their Facebook page.
SUNY New Paltz, Brockport, Purchase, Cortland and Buffalo kicked off the “Month of Action” by protesting NYSUNY 2020’s rising student debt and tuition cost. Students all over the state walked out of their classrooms at noon Friday, March 4 and joined their peers in designated areas to spread their message.
SUNY New Paltz senior sociology and international relations major and NYSR organizer Kelsey Ryan said students walked out of their classes in a statement that the institution could not exist without its students who pay tuition and attend classes. She said they have “every right to demand a freeze in tuition,” which is the restriction of an institution’s ability to increase fees for its students.
She said approximately 200 people congregated outside the campus academic building before taking their initiative through the town with posters and banners, chanting phrases like “freeze tuition now,” “fight, fight, fight, education is our right” and “students united, we will never be defeated.”
SUNY Brockport senior history major Conner Wolfe said they had about 100 students walk out of class to join him in their campus student union for the rally that day. Their Student Association president and treasurer introduced the crowd with the big picture: This is a SUNY wide initiative to get financial relief from the state. Then they invited students to share their thoughts on the tuition increases through NYSUNY 2020 and how much debt they will be carrying after graduation.
“It was an incredible response,” he said. “It was great to see that much support.”
At SUNY Purchase, about 100 students convened in front of their student services building, and many students shared personal stories of the consequences of their education being unaffordable for them.
SUNY Purchase senior English literature major and President of Purchase Student Government Association Joseph Chiavaro read a letter on behalf of the university president at the event.
“He’s speaking out for our best interest in that he wants no more burden on the students,” Chiavaro said. “We all want maintenance of effort to be upheld, and as long as it’s being upheld, that is the most important point.”
Wolfe said SUNY Brockport’s stance is that the students do not support continued tuition increases without correlating state support, and they are in favor of a tuition freeze until that state support is prevalent.
“The meaningful state reinvestment is something that everyone, that all are involved with SUNY, can get behind,” Wolfe said. “Whether that’s administrators, faculty, staff or students, we can all see benefits from state reinvestments the state promised.”
Plattsburgh State Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost James Liszka said in terms of all of PSUC’s funds, 20 percent comes from the state budget and 80 percent comes from tuition, and the university is dependent on that tuition to maintain the operation. He also said many years ago those percentages were reversed in that the state supported the majority of the university’s budget.
“What we want is a return to the 50/50 split of tuition costs between students and the state,” Chiavaro said. “What that requires is maintenance of effort, but until then, we want to freeze tuition so that we, as students, aren’t continually exploited by the state to get the education we need.”
Ryan said the state has been neglecting its promise to help New York state higher education get better quality education and opportunity programs, which was a part of the original NYSUNY 2020 plan. She also said SUNY New Paltz’s NYSR chapter is asking for the return of the 50/50 split and advocating for a rejection of NYSUNY 2020, a tuition freeze and a state investment back into SUNY and CUNY.
“Instead of them putting money into operating services, such as heating bills or professors’ salaries, it’s just been the students’ tuition that has been covering those things because the state has been disinvesting, and at the same time, students’ tuition is increasing,” Ryan said. “So, students are paying more, but getting the same quality.”
Liszka said PSUC is concerned about student debt and tries to be as economical and efficient with its operations as possible. He said everyone would be accepting if the state decided to reinvest funds to higher education and see the burden or costs shift away from students.
“If we have an increase in support from the state, we can offer more. We can make more efforts to increase the quality of programs,” he said. “There are a lot of good things that we can do with that money.”
The goal of this “Month of Action” is to keep students vocal about the issue and to keep campuses connected.
Since the March 4 walk out, SUNY New Paltz has maintained action with daily campaigns for student initiative on their campus.
“I really hope that other students start to realize that we are mobilizing, and we can make a change,” Ryan said. “Our voices can be heard, and we can change policy.”
Email Lisa Scivolette at firstname.lastname@example.org