Cuomo’s “Free” Tuition Plan is a Racist Snub to Working-Class Students


It’s the start of the school year. Like many of my fellow students, I’m holding high aspirations for the coming semester. Yet at the same time I have an aching feeling of dread deep in the pit of my stomach. At the beginning of every semester I have an overwhelming feeling of anxiety about how I’m going to pay for my classes. I wonder if I will qualify for financial aid. I debate whether I can afford to take time off from work, which would allow me to qualify for full-time financial aid. Every semester I notice that I spend more time stressing over money to afford school than I do over my grades. I stress about another semester skipping meals, missing rent and losing sleep. Luckily our most honorable and gracious governor has come to my rescue!

At first, I like many of my friends celebrated the news that New York state colleges were going to become tuition free. This was unbelievable news, something I had been fighting for over five years. As a member of the People Power Movement, I was a student organizer at LaGuardia Community College. Three years ago, we organized a petition drive that collected over 500 student signatures demanding an end to tuition hikes as well as arguing for a free and democratic state college system. We dropped the petitions off at the governor’s offices in midtown Manhattan and held a rally in front of his building. So, when I heard Cuomo give the news at the press conference with Bernie Sanders at my old alma mater, LaGuardia, my first thought was that the governor finally found the time to read our petition. It finally looked like all our sacrifices and hard work was not in vain. Then again, apart of me was suspicious. As a native New Yorker, I can smell bullshit a mile away. If it seems too good to be true, I worry that it just might not be true. Yet I was optimistic. And I was wrong As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Photo Credit: Corey Oakley

During the next few days after the governor made his announcement the grimy details of the plan began to slowly leak out. Each news drop mad the plan look much worse than the last. With each drop of news my optimism slowly died. What looked at first to be a revolutionary plan to change the lives of millions of New Yorkers ended up becoming a plan to further marginalize millions of the poorest and most vulnerable. What was supposed to be a plan to bridge divides will most likely widen those divides. What was meant to bring more equality will end up being a plan that is not only pure and adulterated racism but unhinged class warfare.

That’s right I said it, Cuomo’s “free” college plan represents a racist class war and I’m going to tell you why. Considerer the fact that 60% of CUNY students go to college tuition “free” anyway. Most of CUNY’s student population are poor/working class thus making them eligible for TAP and Pell grants. Literally more than half of CUNY students dangle dangerously close to the poverty line, earning less than $30,000 a year. That population is also overwhelmingly made up of people of color. In 2015 a CUNY demographic study found that white students make up a small 26.2% of the senior college population and an even smaller 15.3% of the community college population. Additionally, almost a third of the SUNY and CUNY students go to school part-time. Cuomo’s plan demands students take 30 credits a semester and graduate on time in order to be eligible for free tuition. That means the needs of the 80,000 students who go to CUNY part-time, myself included, will be ignored by the plan. For working class students of color who must work part-time to survive, the governor’s plan will punish them for being poor. It sure looks like that to me.

Responding to criticism that the program does little to support not only part-time students but also the neediest students the governor claimed that the plan encourages part-time students to become full-time students. A statement as arrogant as that can only come out of the mouth of a man who has little clue of what it’s like growing up poor and of color in one of the most unaffordable and economic unequal cities in the world. Or perhaps Cuomo just doesn’t care. The state’s logic–that working-class part-time students of color will be encouraged to pursue full course loads if they are denied state allocated resources–is indicative of the “deserving poor” ideology and institutionally racist policies on which the state operates. In some regards, one can even argue that by offering a free tuition program to families that make less than $125,000 per year, governor Cuomo’s plan is effectively an affirmative action program for middle-class whites at the expense of working-class people of color.

And that expense has just got substantially more costly. For the 80,000 part-time students of CUNY or for any student (for example, one who is undocumented) who is not eligible for the “Excelsior Scholarship,” the Governor’s program will end up being a trojan horse for tuition hikes. If you doubt me, email me, and I’ll show you my bill. On July 21 of this year the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to enact a $300 tuition hike every year for the next five years. Who knew something free could be so expensive? As Cuomo congratulates himself, further portraying himself as the progressive that he is not, the most socially and economically oppressed groups of students (such as myself) are footing the bill. Our continued exploitation and exclusion within CUNY should be an eye opener. CUNY has always struggled with class and racial conflict regarding inclusion. Working-class Black and Latino students in 1969 fought for and won open admissions at CUNY. The demographic makeup of our university today is a direct result of the struggle in 1969. It is up to us to live up to that legacy. We owe it to those who came before us. We owe it to ourselves, and most of all we owe it to the future. Without a working-class based student movement demanding an end to the racist class warfare policy we will continue to be at the mercy of those who care little about us. If you have any reservations about taking a stand just ask yourself: if not now when and if not you who?

One thought on “Cuomo’s “Free” Tuition Plan is a Racist Snub to Working-Class Students

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