Dozens of students at Queensborough Community College braved below-freezing temperatures last week to sign petitions and speak out against proposed tuition hikes and funding cuts to higher education.
The Feb. 26 protest was part of a series of rallies at public colleges statewide urging Gov. George Pataki and state legislators not to implement the governor's budget proposals on higher education for the next fiscal year.
Although Pataki has officially left it up to the colleges to determine a specific tuition increase, a Feb. 3 report prepared by the state Assembly's Ways and Means Committee said the increase would amount to $1,200 a year at SUNY and CUNY schools.
Tuition is currently $3,400 a year at SUNY and $3,200 at CUNY.
The governor's other proposals include a deferment of one-third of tuition assistance money until students complete their degrees, and cuts to opportunity programs that provide tutoring and internship placement to disadvantaged students.
Blaming the state's looming $11.5 billion budget deficit, Pataki announced the proposed reductions, which include a 15 percent cut in state funding for SUNY and 12 percent for CUNY, at the end of January.
"Gov. Pataki is proposing something totally awful for students," said Giuseppe Vella, president of the college's student government, at the protest.
"Yes, we are a community college, but we want to go further in our education," said Vella, addressing students from a stage on the Humanities Quad. "I see futures here."
Many Queensborough students, such as freshman David Harris, hope to go on to Queens College after graduation from community college.
"It's already high as it is," said the Bayside High School graduate of the tuition at the City University of New York. An increase "will only make it harder."
After rallying at Queensborough, several students joined a mass gathering on the steps of City Hall, the latest stop in a 561-mile relay march of college students across the state that will end in Albany March 11.
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing), the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Higher Education Committee, joined the Queensborough protest along with the college's president, Eduardo Marti.
"If you think it's cold today, take a look at Pataki's budget. That's cold," she told students.
Stavisky said that after the state's last tuition hike in 1996, thousands of students dropped out of college.
"As a result, we've lost their contribution," said Stavisky, whose district includes Queensborough and Queens College.
One of the most controversial parts of Pataki's proposed budget is the restructuring of the state's Tuition Assistance Program known as TAP for needy students.
Under the plan, students would receive two-thirds of their promised assistance, with the remaining third withheld until they complete their degrees.
In the meantime, students would be encouraged to apply for federal loans to finance the remaining third, which would be paid back to students when they graduate.
Sociology major Jeffrey Ijaji, 19, a Bushwick resident, especially took issue with proposed cuts to the College Discovery tutoring program, which he relies on and also provides some financial aid.
"I can't afford all these books," said Ijaji, who commutes two hours by subway and bus to get to class. "I'm next to broke in everything."
Ijaji lives with his mother, two sisters and a niece.
"My mom doesn't have a lot so I need all the aid I can get," he said.
Stavisky pointed out that many CUNY students are the first in their families to go to college, an argument echoed by Jackson Heights resident Luis Alcea, 23.
"CUNY is a beacon of opportunity for the immigrants in this city," said Alcea, who believes college education should be free, period.
"If they take that away from us, what's the future of this city?"
Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.
©2003 Community News Group
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