As the city’s public community colleges prepare to bring back some in-person courses this fall, many students will struggle to leap financial hurdles to get into the classroom.
A new study by the Center for an Urban Future found that even before the pandemic, more than half of City University of New York community college students dropped out before completing their degrees within three years. Just 27% of full-time, first-time students earn a two-year associate degree in three years, according to CUNY estimates.
The problem isn’t just the $4,800 annual tuition for full-time, in-state students, according to the study — it’s the expense of other items, including child care, textbooks, school supplies and MetroCards that shuts many out of a path to earning a college credential.
“There’s an understanding that a lot of lower-income families in New York need that help: You need the free train ride to go to school, you need to subsidize textbooks,” said Jonathan Bowles, the Center for an Urban Future’s executive director. “But when we get to public community colleges — one grade higher, the 13th and 14th grades — the financial need doesn’t just go away,” even when the help does, he said.
He called on the next mayor and City Council to allocate funding for costs that go beyond tuition assistance at CUNY’s seven community colleges, which served nearly 92,000 full- and part-time students as of 2019.
A majority of the city’s community college students receive some form of financial aid, while roughly half work full-time and more than 70% live in a household earning less than $30,000 a year. Faced with unexpected expenses such as medical bills — or even expected ones, such as MetroCards — many students drop out to stay financially afloat, the study found.
The report coincides with a pending budget deal at City Hall with big stakes for CUNY community college students short on funds.
As proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would cut $10 million from a program called CUNY ASAP, which provides full-time students who meet certain academic standards with textbook subsidies and a free MetroCard. That’s about one-eighth of the program’s budget.
The average full-time CUNY community college student received approximately $7,503 in aid, including for tuition, last year. But the costs of everything else — from books to supplies to transportation — can total $10,368 for students living at home or with relatives, according to CUF’s analysis of nine-month student budgets.
For students living on their own, expenses over the same time period can total $24,446. And costs can be even higher for the one-fifth of CUNY community college students who are parents: an extra $600 per month, unless they qualify for Head Start.
The cost of a MetroCard alone — around $1,000 per year — often derails students from their studies.
That includes former Borough of Manhattan Community College student Darleny Suriel. Though the 23-year-old worked full-time at a Best Buy, she often didn’t have enough money to take the train to school.
“Sometimes I either had to hop the turnstile or, you know, there were times that there was police in my train station, and if I had no money for a MetroCard, I just wouldn’t go to class,” she said. “Between a $100 ticket and not going to class, I just wouldn’t go to class.”
As Suriel’s absences piled up, her grades plummeted: At the end of her first year, she was put on academic probation and lost her financial aid. In 2017, she took a year-and-a-half-long hiatus from school, working to support her family and to pay off the $3,000 debt she owed the school.
The job losses of the pandemic made matters worse for many students: Early surveys cited by the Center for an Urban Future suggest that half of CUNY students lost part-time or full-time work during the pandemic.
Students were faced with crushing decisions, like buying computers or buying groceries.
After he lost his job in construction due to the pandemic, then-BMCC student Luis Hernández, 25, chose to shell out $3,000 for a new computer and other equipment.
“I was already halfway through the semester, it was a difficult decision, but it was too late to drop classes,” Hernández told THE CITY. “I bought the computer knowing I would be hungry.”
ASAP for All
The report proposes several solutions to help CUNY students. Among them: expanding child care to every community college campus, and supplying a free MetroCard and meals to every community college student in the city, the same as afforded to middle and high school students.
It’s an approach that CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos-Rodríguez supports: “We should think of higher education as a K-14 system and extend any support or service provided for K-12 by two years,” he noted at a recent forum.
Suriel, the former BMCC student, agreed.
“How can a high school student who couldn’t afford a MetroCard, or lunch, be expected to pay for it two months later when they go to college?” Suriel said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
The Center also recommends expanding CUNY ASAP to every community college student. That would require $86 million in additional annual funding — while yielding an additional 16,000 graduates per year, according to the Center’s estimates.
“Policymakers in the city are really focused on how do we build a more inclusive economy, and how do we expand economic opportunity in the city,” said Bowles. “And I think that the city’s community colleges have to be at the center of that discussion.”
‘Help Us Succeed’
Suriel and Hernández managed to beat the odds, with help from their employers or others.
Hernández finished his associate’s degree last fall and now studies construction management at City Tech. During the pandemic, he received groceries through his local church and participated in grassroots distribution efforts in Southeastern Queens, where he lives.
He went back to work earlier this year. But he urges the city’s next mayor and the incoming City Council to “help us succeed” by providing funds for school supplies and MetroCards for future students in need.
“Don’t let us drop out, because there is a lot of energy. Just like me, I’m pretty sure hundreds of students also are fighting every day in the same situation. There is a lot of energy and we do want to succeed, but we need help.”
Suriel returned to school in 2019 after paying the back tuition she owed for her first year, putting in hours at Best Buy and by working part-time at Goddard Riverside, a local nonprofit where she still works on the education equity team.
That job reimbursed her for her MetroCard, and her managers let her take snacks and made other gestures of support, which “made such a big difference,” Suriel said. She completed her associates’ last December and is now at City College, where she’s a political science major.
She credits the support she received for her turnaround.
“As they say, the proof is in the pudding: When I had to leave because I was on academic probation, my GPA was 1.70. And last year I graduated with a 3.30,” she said. “I was in a better headspace, and I was able to focus.”