CUNY hike shakes dreams of LIC students

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While the futures of most Queens high school seniors are in the hands of college admissions officers, the academic careers of many students at International High School now depend on the decision of a Manhattan judge.

Some 20 percent of the students at the Long Island City school are undocumented immigrants, meaning many have been forced to adjust their college plans due to the City University of New York’s decision to raise tuition for those in the country illegally.

The students at the public school that occupies part of the basement of LaGuardia Community College now await the decision of State Supreme Court Judge William Wetzel, who heard closing arguments Jan. 25 in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the tuition hike. If he upholds CUNY’s move, their academic lives will be in serious jeopardy, five International students originally from Colombia said in interviews Monday.

“A lot of us will not go to school,” said an 18-year-old senior who came to Jackson Heights from the South American nation five years ago because her father had been threatened by guerrillas.

Instead of choosing between full-time study at various four-year schools such as City College or Hunter College, International HS students are weighing whether to study at CUNY’s two-year community colleges, to undertake part-time course work at a four-year school or to forgo classes altogether in favor of work.

“It’s had a real chilling effect,” said Burt Rosenberg, principal of the school, which is home to 450 students from 50 countries. “City University had always been the salvation for these kids.”

CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein acknowledged in a letter to elected officials that the change in policy will cause “hardship” to students, but said the university must abide by federal law.

A policy review prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led CUNY to announce Nov. 5 it was hiking tuition to comply with a 1996 federal law requiring that illegal aliens be treated as out-of-state residents.

Under the new plan, illegal immigrants’ tuition will more than double at CUNY’s four-year colleges from $1,600 per semester to $3,400. Tuition at CUNY’s two-year community colleges will rise from $1,250 to $1,583 per semester.

Since undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, the tuition increase has prompted International HS seniors to scale back their dreams.

“You plan goals for your life,” said the 18-year old from Jackson Heights. “When I started my senior year, I wanted to go to Baruch to study business. But now I have to look at BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College) or LaGuardia (Community College).”

Of late, the principal’s office has been flooded with calls from International HS graduates forced to abandon their studies at CUNY’s four year colleges.

Rosenberg said the school does everything it can to help its students become legal residents. Lawyers working on a pro bono basis meet with students to review their individual immigration situations.

Many of his students are on their way toward achieving the coveted status of becoming documented residents.

But for some obtaining a green card is a far-off dream and a different kind of counseling is offered to them. “We also deal with emotional issues that come out,” Rosenberg said.

Many of International HS’s undocumented students hold part-time jobs at substandard wages to support their families and earn money for college, the students said.

They said they would have struggled to pay tuition at CUNY’s four-year schools before the tuition hike, which comes at a time when many of their families are trying to survive following Sept. 11 layoffs.

“My father used to work as a tour guide,” said a 19-year-old Sunnyside senior who hoped to study computer science at Hunter or Baruch. The Jackson Heights senior said her father lost his job as a porter following the attacks. “He hasn’t found a job yet,” she said. “He’s still looking.”

The undocumented seniors, who Rosenberg said were among the school’s hardest working students, said all they wanted was the chance to continue with their education.

“All of a sudden they close doors on you because you don’t have certain papers,” said a 17-year old from Jackson Heights who hoped to study accounting or web design at City College. “You can’t progress the same as another person.”

The frustrated students, who have lived and studied in the United States for at least three years, wondered if their hard work throughout high school would go for naught.

“I gave so much and now I’m getting nothing back,” said another 18-year-old from Jackson Heights who wanted to study international business at Baruch. “The only thing we want is opportunity.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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