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Queens College students worried over CUNY cuts

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For Queens College freshman Denisse Prudencio Jimenez, Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to cut CUNY budgets could dash her lifelong hopes of being the first in her family to graduate from college.

Paterson’s proposal to carve $84.3 million from CUNY’s 2011-12 budget includes a decrease in financial aid that may spell disaster for Jimenez, who relies on the aid for her tuition and books. Jimenez said she would probably have to leave school altogether because her family, supported by her father’s wages from working in a restaurant, cannot afford to pay more for her education.

“To go to college was a dream I had since I was little,” Jimenez said. “I’m the first in my family to attend college. My other family members, the highest they reached was fifth-grade in Mexico.”

More than 3,000 Queens College and Queensborough Community College students signed a New York Public Interest Research Group petition urging state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) to reject the governor’s plan to cut financial aid and authorize tuition hikes, moves Paterson said are necessary to help fill the state’s $7.4 billion budget deficit.

Stavisky chairs of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

If the governor’s budget is approved, CUNY community colleges would lose $21.8 million not long after a $5.3 million mid-year cut was implemented.

“This is a budget of necessity, not a budget of choice,” said Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget. “In good economic times, a lot of these actions would never be considered, but given how serious our crisis is we have to make reductions.”

Stavisky, who met with a number of college students when they delivered the petition to her Friday, said she plans to fight Paterson’s budget cuts to CUNY and SUNY.

“These are devastating cuts to higher education in the governor’s proposal,” Stavisky said. “%u2026 There have been systematic cuts to higher education that began three or four years ago and have continued. It’s a downward spiral that’s making higher education less affordable and accessible.”

The Whitestone legislator said she was especially concerned that Paterson’s plan includes removing CUNY and SUNY for the budget process, which would shift the power to increase tuition away from state lawmakers to school administrators — a move praised by many school chancellors but which others have said could result in more tuition hikes for students.

Anderson said taking CUNY and SUNY out of the budget process would allow administrators to make more evenhanded tuition increases instead of having the state implement the increases only when it needs to fill a budget gap.

Andrew Sokolof, a sophomore at Queensborough Community College, said he, too, may have to leave school entirely if the cuts are enacted.

“This semester alone I’ve had to work more and take two fewer classes because of cuts,” said Sokolof, a Jackson Heights resident. “I was supposed to transfer to SUNY New Paltz this year, but because of the governor’s cuts and the tuition hike I had to stay here. I’m lagging behind in my studies.”

Sokolof, who works at a grocery store in Flushing to support his education, said he believes many students could vote against Paterson based on the negative reaction to cuts to CUNY and SUNY.

Paterson has said steep budget cuts are necessary to address the deficit.

“Since the day I became governor, I have warned that New York is facing an inevitable fiscal reckoning,” Paterson said in a statement. “There are no more easy answers. We cannot keep spending money that we do not have. Significant spending reductions are necessary if we want to emerge from this crisis and build a strong fiscal and economic recovery.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:48 pm, October 10, 2011
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