Make the playing field fair for lower income college students

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At Baruch College this week, students demonstrated for lower tuition.  “I work and it’s just not enough,” one said.  “My parents don’t have money, but I don’t qualify for aid.”

It’s a common refrain.  Money is tight everywhere, and college students are getting squeezed.  But there are not any easy answers.

CUNY approved a series of $300 increases in tuition this week, in a five year plan that will raise tuition for undergraduates to $6,330 in 2016.  The first increase is already in place.

In Occupy Wall Street style, CUNY students took to the streets around Baruch.  They were peaceful, but some shouted at cops and from time to time ran into the streets to halt traffic.  This followed a demonstration last week at Baruch where students held a sit-in and 15 were arrested.

CUNY says their hand is forced by a cut of some $300 million in aid, in addition to exploding enrollment.  And they say about 60 percent of all students enrolled get a free ride from state and federal aid.  CUNY says the tuition raise would avoid layoffs that would have become inevitable.

But students say the student body is largely made up of low-income students and that there is nothing more important than the education of the next generation.

Nobody can argue with that.  But nobody can argue that CUNY’s price of $6,000 a year for tuition is still an incredible bargain. They say they are still much less expensive that most higher educational public institutions in the country, and they are right.

Clearly the money is not there.  Of course, CUNY is largely reliant on Albany, which votes the money to permit increases.  CUNY says the Legislature has been erratic, sometimes allowing tuition increases, then going years not voting for them.  This created an uneven flow of increases that was unfair to some students.

So CUNY says that the $300 increases will at least make things fairer for students on an on-going basis.

Low-income students who can’t qualify for some aid still have to struggle to pay tuition, and taking out loans will only burden them when they graduate, and quite possibly, can’t find a job.  They do not have the benefit of parents who can easily write checks and get them into fancy institutions even when their grades are not the best.

What’s clear is that of all the priorities in the city and state, nothing is more important to our economy than higher education.  This is one area where we have succeeded in the past.  It’s crucial that going forward, making the playing field fair for lower income college students be kept a top priority.