Who Needs To Reach Higher For Higher Education?

Jeff Bryant

First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled on Friday to provide a commencement address to the graduating class of 3,000 students at The City College of New York in Harlem. As the White House announcement states, her address has some additional historic significance in that CCNY was the first public higher education institution in New York City, “established as a free institution dedicated to overcoming barriers to advancement.”

It wouldn’t be at all surprising for the First Lady to mention this in her address, as she continues to emphasize in all her commencement speeches this year her theme of “reach higher.” The Reach Higher Initiative, according to the White House, “is the First Lady’s effort to inspire every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school.” So it would seem appropriate to recognize the monumental contribution that a free public higher education institution no doubt has had on helping multiple generations “take charge of their future.”

Unfortunately, though, CCNY hasn’t been free in 40 years. Even worse, student tuition and fees have increased dramatically in recent years, as the state continues to underfund the school since the economic downturn in 2008, while physical conditions and resources deteriorate.

As an article in The New York Times notes, at CCNY’s “handsome Gothic campus, leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts.”

The problems at City College are symptomatic of what’s happening to higher education throughout New York, where, according to the Times article, enrollment in the state’s City University system – a collection of 24 urban campuses that includes City College – has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years while funding from the state has dropped by 17 percent, adjusted for inflation.

Under the current austerity imposed by the state, another Times article explains, the CUNY system has had to raise tuition by $300 in each of the last five years and will likely continue to do so for another five years. Tuition hikes come on top of a $280 annual fee, significantly raising the financial challenge to CUNY students, more than half of who report family incomes of under $30,000.

Keep in mind this austerity has been imposed under the gubernatorial administration of Andrew Cuomo – a Democrat undermining the stated goals of a Democratic Party presidential administration. Cuomo’s plan is to reduce state funding to CUNY by $485 million, according to a report in Inside Higher Education.

Why is Cuomo intent on cutting higher education and raising tuition at the very same time government leaders are exhorting young people to take their education beyond higher school?

It’s not just Cuomo. According to a new report, most states are on par with New York or even worse in cutting their commitments to higher education. A review of the report by Hechinger Report explains, “States are collectively investing 17 percent less in their public colleges and universities, or $1,525 less per student, since 2007.”

While funding has been slashed, public colleges have increased published tuition prices by 33 percent since 2007.

Which states are worse than New York? According to the Times article cited at the top of this post, “Arizona is spending 56 percent less, while students are paying 88 percent more. In Louisiana, students are spending 80 percent more on tuition, while state funding has been cut by 39 percent.

Students, of course, are the ones having to take the brunt of the funding crunch by taking on more college loan debt. As Hechinger notes, from 2008 and 2014, the share of students graduating with debt from a public four-year college increased from 55 to 60 percent, while the size of the average debt load rose 18 percent. In the six years before the recession, the average debt only went up by 1 percent.

College and university faculty have taken a beating from the financial austerity, too. According to recent data, faculty positions are 76 percent more apt to be filled by part-timers than they were 40 years ago. During the same time period, the number of tenured, full-time positions has dropped by 26 percent and full-time positions on a tenure track have gone down by half.

Given these circumstances, it’s understandable why college enrollments in the nation are now in decline. Part of this decline may be attributable to increased availability of jobs, but that doesn’t change the fact that young adults forgoing a chance at a degree are also lowering their potential to have higher paying jobs later in life.

Declining enrollments are also not going to get the White House anywhere closer to its stated goal of ensuring, by 2020, that America once again has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

This Friday, Michele Obama may intend to commend City College graduates, and inspire other students, for their effort to “reach higher” in education. Let’s hope she also tells policy leaders and public officials to do the same to fund it.

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