“Education is in danger of becoming an inherited privilege.” This statement comes from Richard Eskow in his essay regarding free higher education being a human right. The stance he takes on it is a commonly held one, especially now, and one in which I believe. The topic of free public higher education has gained more relevance recently with the President of the United States hoping to make two-year colleges free. For this generation of students, it is unprecedented. However, there was a time when college was free, or more affordable. The example of CUNY is a microcosm of the larger free higher education picture. What started out as free has risen to thousands of dollars, and the residents of New York have been none too pleased. By looking at the history of CUNY tuition, it will become easier to understand the context of free higher education and the protests by which it is surrounded.
The current cost for a full time CUNY student at a four-year college is $6,330 per year. At two-year colleges, it is $4,800. This is very different from the $0 prior to the 1970s. However, once 1976 hits, it all changes. As Conor Tomas-Reed points out, tuition at CUNY was tied into the fiscal crisis of New York City. He quotes H. Bruce Franklin, who writes:
President Ford explicitly declared that he would withhold federal aid from New York City, which was then in a severe financial crisis, until it eliminated the self-indulgent luxury of open admissions and free tuition at City University. To be financially responsible, the president declared. New York must no longer be a city that "operates one of the largest universities in the world, free of tuition for any high school graduate, rich or poor, who wants to attend."
This is when it all changes. New York’s cities financial crisis led to the fall (or rise) of CUNY tuition. So what was the initial price? In 1976, four-year college tuition was $925 while two year was $775. In 1983, it was $1,225 for four years and two years. Twenty years later, in 2003, it hit $4,000 for four years and $2,800 for two years. Comparing those numbers to now, it is easy to realize that these increases have not been in small increments. In fact, tuition continues to rise to this day.
On November 28, 2012, the board of trustees of CUNY approved a $300 annual tuition increase that would last through 2015. That means, even right now, tuition increase continues. However, this approval was not met without its fair share of protests and displeasure. Just a week earlier, a violent protest erupted at one of the buildings of Baruch College. There were clashes with the police and books dropped out of windows above.
While not always violent, protests in response to tuition hikes have occurred frequently since the removal of free college education. As with the protest mentioned above, some get physical, and some last for days. Most people would agree when it is said something should cost less. It is just the way of the world. Why pay more when you can pay less? However, in terms of tuition, it is becoming more of a feeling of personal rights then it is being “cheap.” As Richard Eskow states, “Social mobility in the United States is at or near its lowest point in modern history… In the midst of this class ossification, higher education remains a powerful tool for social mobility.” (Eskow, "Free Higher Education Is a Human Right") College is not just education. It provides for more lucrative careers and jobs, and carries with it a certain amount of respect. However, sometimes paying for this amount of money proves to be no small feat. Between living conditions and household incomes for some students, paying this can seem only impossible. Therefore, students fight. Students are out there protesting for what they believe to be their right, not something they have to be able to afford. But, what goes through the mind of a protester fighting to stop tuition increases?
Sometimes all that is seen is the violence and the rebel rousing, and the time to really get inside the head of a protester is never taken. I recently had the chance to talk with a man by the name of James Summerville, a John Jay (CUNY school) student in the year 1989. In the spring of his first year, he decided to join the occupation of a building lobby for five days in retaliation to a planned tuition hike. He discussed his personal experience, how he was young and impressionable. He explains that, “[This protest] coincided with the protests in Beijing. In the air was this idea of protests and the fight for rights to do x,y, and z.” He is referring to the boycott of universities in China by college students and countrywide calls for democratic reforms. Again, it is this call for fundamental rights.
The protest in the building went on for five days, lasting until news arrived that the tuition hike had been rescinded. They won. They had fought for what they believe in, and even though it only lasted until the following year, a victory is a victory, no matter for how long. For James, it was more than just saving money: "I became an adult. I was away from home and stood up for something I believed in. It was liberating in a sense." It was a life experience and one he continues to carry with him to this day.
As can be seen, tuition has increased greatly over the years. Students have to pay for the something they believe to be a fundamental right. College is not just the next step in education; it is a status symbol, a way of moving up, and a way of earning a better career and life. Students fight every week in some form or another to get back what they feel is owed to them. James Summerville was a regular student whose household income was not high by any means. He chose to stand up for something that would affect him for years to come, not just money wise, but as a person. As CUNY tuition continues to rise, within the eyes of the public, higher education has taken a fall.
"CUNY Tuition." CUNYTIME Taking Back Our University. 13 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.