Andrew Cuomo's War on Higher Education

State Aid to CUNY, adjusted for inflation, has shrunk since Cuomo took office

In the Nation today, I wrote about imminent budget cuts to the City University of New York, one of the most important higher education systems in America. With coronavirus-induced shutdowns obliterating tax revenue in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo is eyeing steep cuts to local governments. Public education, never a favorite of Cuomo’s, is in his crosshairs.

What will actually get cut? It’s too soon to tell. Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica—a former State Senate Republican staffer—has warned of more than $10 billion in cuts if federal funding doesn’t show up soon. Given the nature of Washington and Donald Trump’s hostility to New York, it’s not at all clear Cuomo will get the $60 billion he wants. And maybe he knows this. Cuomo and Mujica have set up a very clear ultimatum that has generally been parroted by New York’s centrist intelligentsia: federal aid or deep, devastating cuts. In the coming days, Cuomo is expected to detail exactly where the bleeding will be.

Remember: Cuomo won extraordinary, unprecedented power from the state legislature in April, when the annual budget was passed, to impose rolling cuts throughout the year. At certain points, Cuomo will propose reductions and the legislature will get 10 days to counter with reductions of their own. Within this new process, they can’t pitch revenue raisers like tax hikes. It’s the equivalent of getting to pick which appendage to slash off the body—arm or leg.

CUNY and SUNY, the State University of New York, have never been particular priorities for Cuomo, even during relative boom times. That, at least, is as charitably as I can put it. The darker view is that Cuomo just doesn’t like public higher education all that much because it doesn’t square with his neoliberal orientation. In 2016, when the economy was humming along, Cuomo tried to slash almost $500 million in state funding from CUNY, a full 30 percent reduction. The backlash was swift and Cuomo eventually dropped the idea. But he has otherwise been parsimonious with state aid. Since he took office in 2011, state funding for CUNY has actually declined, when adjusted for inflation, by 5 percent. This is remarkable because New York’s GDP—and revenue generally—had increased during this time until the COVID-19 crisis.

CUNY may be a city system, but it’s Andrew Cuomo who determines its fate. The state has dominion over the city. New York State provides 53 percent of the funding to the senior colleges—like Brooklyn, Queens and Hunter—while New York City only kicks in 2 percent. Tuition and fees make up the rest. New York City offers far more funding for the community colleges: 43 percent vs. 24 percent from the state. Overall, the state provides the bulk of funding. Forty-five percent of CUNY’s funding comes from the state and only 14 percent from the city, with the rest made up for by tuition and fees. CUNY is, effectively, a state system.

Under Cuomo, tuition has continued to rise. When I graduated from SUNY Stony Brook in 2011 (Cuomo’s first year in office), tuition was $5,130 a year for full-time students at colleges and universities. Now it’s $6,930, with another increase likely to come next month. CUNY’s student body is overwhelmingly working class and poor. Forty-two percent of all first-time freshmen come from households with incomes of $20,000 or less.

CUNY senior colleges, as I write, are preemptively making cuts, anticipating Cuomo’s austerity. It’s possible those close to Cuomo, like Mujica—who sits on the CUNY Board of Trustees—have already told them to start shrinking departments and laying off adjuncts. It’s a particularly terrible time, with enrollment likely to rise in the fall as more people seek the safe harbor of education to avoid a dismal job market. Class sizes will balloon. Majors will be harder to complete. Capital repairs will likely be put off, leading to a further deterioration of aging buildings.

New York City, the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a diminished city for sometime. Like in the aftermath of the 1970s fiscal crisis, there will be a painful rebuilding. Cuomo is right to chase federal funds—the more, the better, and a rational federal government would be plowing near-unlimited money into distressed states—but he’s made no attempt to seek additional revenue at home. He has been long resistant to raising taxes, belittling the idea of asking the wealthy to pay more to fund public services. Any number of taxes (a billionaire’s tax, a stock transfer tax, a pied-a-terre tax) could help close the looming budget gap, with the rest made up for by whatever the federal government coughs up. After 9/11, New York City raised property taxes. After the 2008 economic crash, then-Governor David Paterson pushed through a millionaire’s tax. With a far deeper crisis looming, the state will need revenue. Cuomo and conservatives warn new taxes will chase the rich away. But there are more than enough wealthy people who still do business in New York. This fear is usually overstated.

If CUNY is cut drastically, it is the working class and poor who will suffer the most. It will be a blow to a city that needs a world-class higher education institution to maintain its standing and attract new residents. Cuomo does not fetishize public education the way he does a new bridge or tunnel. It doesn’t make for a good photo-op and ultimately goes against his privatization ethos. (Not long ago, Cuomo was a loud, unapologetic champion of charter schools.) What New Yorkers will need to guard against most is the austerity mindset, embraced by Cuomo and those who surround him. Austerity is self-defeating, particularly in a time of economic catastrophe. When funding for schools and social services are drained and public employees are laid off en masse, the depression will only deepen. Austerity crippled the recovery from the Eurocrisis in the 2010s. The best way to gird against a second Great Depression will be spending. The federal government must spend trillions, buy up debt, and print more money if it has to. (Jerome Powell, hardly a radical, has said as much.) This federal money must be used to prop up local governments like New York’s, so essential services aren’t hobbled beyond recognition.

At the same time, until the federal government steps up, the future of CUNY will be in Andrew Cuomo’s hands. He can embrace taxation to protect a higher education system that services the kind of people who keep the city afloat. Two state senators have already introduced legislation to temporarily raise taxes on those earning more than $5 million to provide revenue for CUNY and SUNY. Cuomo, tomorrow, can embrace that bill, or several others floating in Albany. He can go further, making CUNY a linchpin of New York’s economic recovery. In the darkness of the Great Depression, Brooklyn College and Queens College were both founded. Expansion, not contraction, is possible for CUNY. Cuomo can either bare his fangs or pump new blood into the system.