A City Left Behind: A Human Rights Analysis of CUNY¡¯s Rising Tuition and the Right to Higher Education

Katie Bowers


The United Nations calls on member nations to eliminate race and gender-based discrimination within higher education, and to make higher education accessible to all on the basis of merit and individual capacity. The United Nations also dictates that member nations must implement a ¡°progressive introduction of free education.¡± Despite these international obligations and recommendations, price of tuition at the City University of New York (CUNY) has risen rapidly for more than 30 years. This paper examines the legality of CUNY tuition increases in regards to international human rights law and the impact of the increases on student demographics. The paper also reflects on recent student activism, explores non-tuition-based solutions to CUNY¡¯s current financial crisis, and looks at implications for social work practice.


International human rights law calls on nations to eliminate race and gender-based discrimination within higher education and to provide higher education that is accessible to all on the basis of merit and individual capacity. The Convention on Economic, Social and Culture Rights calls for ¡°progressive introduction of free education¡± (United Nations, 1966). Despite these international obligations and recommendations, the City University of New York (CUNY) instituted tuition for the first time in 1976, eliminating one of the largest and most viable options for free higher education in the United States (Gunderson, 2002). The price of tuition has risen rapidly for more than 30 years while government financial aid and support for the institution and its students has not (Lupatto, 2006). These actions have unquestionably shaped the demographics of enrollment and graduation within the CUNY system (Gunderson, 2002). The rising price of tuition means that a student’s decision to attend CUNY is based not only on merit but also on what families can afford. As no viable system of free higher education currently exists in the United States, the ongoing tuition increases and budget cuts within CUNY demonstrate numerous violations of international human rights law in regards to the right to education.

Relevant Standards

The United Nations recognizes education as a fundamental human right (UN General Assembly, 1948). Prominent treaties and declarations including the Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights, the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, and the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education stipulate that several levels of education must be made available by the State. Primary education must be compulsory and free of cost to children and their families, and secondary and tertiary education should be available to the population based on merit (UNESCO, 1960; UN General Assembly, 1989; UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999b). The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stipulates that higher education “shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (UN General Assembly, 1966).

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that while elementary education shall be free and compulsory, ¡°technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit¡± (UN General Assembly, 1948). The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination call for the removal of gender and race-based discrimination in regards to access to and attainment of higher education (UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, 1992; UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 2002). UNESCO asserts that ¡°appropriate financial and educational support¡± must be provided to individuals from poor and marginalized communities in order to facilitate participation and achievement in higher education (UNESCO, 2009). The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that higher education must be made ¡°accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means¡± (UN General Assembly, 1989). The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education contains similar language regarding equal access ¡°on the basis of individual capacity¡± (UNESCO, 1960). The American Declaration on the Rights of Man proclaims, ¡°the right to an education includes the right to equality of opportunity in every case, in accordance with natural talents, merit and the desire to utilize the resources that the state or the community is in a position to provide¡± (Organization of American States, 1948).

The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contains one of the most comprehensive articles on the right to education in human right law (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999b). Article 13 contains similar language to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education regarding accessibility on the basis of an individual¡¯s capacity, which is defined as ¡°reference to all their relevant expertise and experience¡± (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999b). As mentioned, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights includes the supplementary requirement that higher education “shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (UN General Assembly, 1966).

In the General Comment No. 13, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded that education at the secondary and tertiary levels must be ¡°affordable¡± and that, while free primary education must be the State¡¯s priority, ¡°they also have an obligation to take concrete steps towards achieving free secondary and higher education¡± (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999b). The term ¡°free¡± refers to all direct costs such as fees imposed by the government, local authorities, or the school, and may include indirect costs such as school uniforms (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999a). Failure to demonstrate “deliberate, concrete, and targeted” measures to progressively introduce free higher education for all is considered a violation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999b).

Issue One: Cost

The City University of New York (CUNY) is the third largest university system in the United States, with 260,000 students enrolled at 23 schools (Yale Daily News Staff, 2010). Founded in 1847, CUNY was tuition-free until 1976 (Malave & Hill, 2003). During the financial crisis of the 1970s the state and city governments cut funding to the university system. Administrators and lawmakers argued that imposing tuition on the previously free public university was the only way to prevent massive cuts to programs across CUNY. Despite significant student and faculty mobilization and protest, the tuition was set at $925 per year at four-year colleges and $775 per year at community colleges (Malave & Hill, 2003). During the following school year of 1976-77, CUNY¡¯s enrollment declined from 250,000 students to 180,000 with a greater decline in enrollment among black and Latino students than among white students (Gunderson, 2002).

The price of tuition escalated quickly following the original instatement. From 1989 to 2006, tuition and fees rose 94% (Arenson, 2006). The spring 2011 tuition at four-year undergraduate CUNY colleges increased to $4830 annually, a 5% increase from the fall 2010 semester. The Board of Trustees also approved a 2% increase for fall 2011 and ¡°authorized the chancellor to raise tuition further if conditions require it¡± (Hartocollis, & Moynihan, 2010). Moreover, while the cost of undergraduate and community colleges remain the same across the CUNY system, graduate programs have begun to differentiate tuition costs. Students in the schools of Social Work at Hunter and Lehman Colleges saw a 16.4% increase from 2010 to 2011. The tuition for Masters of Social Work programs within the CUNY system was $500 more per semester than other CUNY two- year Masters and professional degree programs as of 2010 (Social Workers for a Free CUNY, 2010).

As tuition costs have risen, governmental support for public higher education has declined. From 1989 to 2006, the city’s contribution to CUNY¡¯s budget fell by 24% (Arenson, 2006). From 1990 to 2009, direct state aid to CUNY declined at a steeper rate of 35.4% for four-year colleges and 32.7% for community colleges (Bowen, 2011). The impact of the decline in government support is illuminated in CUNY¡¯s budget. In 1990, tuition and fees comprised 21% of CUNY¡¯s budget compared to 42% in 2010 (Bowen, 2011). Despite the fact that students have contributed more to the university budget, schools continue to face faculty and program cuts with each new tuition increase and class sizes continue to increase (Gunderson, 2002).

In June 2011, the New York State Legislature passed a five year tuition plan for CUNY and SUNY, publicly referred to as the ¡°Rational Tuition Policy¡± or ¡°Rational Tuition Plan¡± (CUNY Matters, 2011; CUNY Offices of Institutional Research and Policy Research, 2011). The policy allows CUNY to raise tuition $300 annually over the next five years for undergraduates, as well as differentiated increases for graduate students and a $315 per semester increase for Masters of Social Work students. On July 26, 2011, Judge Eileen Rakower of the New York State Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order blocking the proposed $300 yearly tuition increase in response to the lawsuit brought forth by CUNY students in December 2010 (Picciano, 2011). The restraining order prevented CUNY from implementing the tuition increase until the entire CUNY Board of Trustees voted on the resolution. On Aug. 3, 2011, the full Board of Trustees met in an emergency meeting and passed the resolution in accordance with Judge Rakower¡¯s order, and the tuition increase was imposed in the fall 2011 semester (CUNY Offices of Institutional Research and Policy Research, 2011). If tuition rises at its maximum rate under the rational tuition policy, four-year undergraduate tuition will be over $3,900 per semester (nearly twice the current price) in 2016, and tuition at CUNY schools of Social Work will be over $8,200 per semester.

Insufficient Aid

Financial aid to students has not kept pace with the rising cost of college tuition. Approximately 6.3 million students, including more than 127,000 from CUNY, received Pell grants in 2010 (City University of New York, 2011). Pell grants provide financial aid to students with an average family income of about $20,000 (Hughes, 2011). In February 2011, President Obama presented an plan that would raise the maximum annual Pell grant to $5,975 and eliminate subsidies for graduate students (Aquino, 2011). The proposed $425 increase in maximum grant allotments would not cover the minimum $500 tuition increase that was enacted for all CUNY students in spring 2011, not to mention the additional increases in fall 2011 (CUNY Offices of Institutional Research and Policy Research, 2011). Obama¡¯s plan did not pass. Despite the rising cost of tuition across the country, the U.S Congress cut Pell¡¯s maximum annual grant from $5,550 to $4,860 per year (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012). The Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), another financial aid program that was introduced to CUNY students during the 1976 tuition imposition, has faced similar cuts throughout the program¡¯s lifetime (Gunderson, 2002).

Overall, as state and city financial support for CUNY has rapidly declined, state and federal support for student aid has not matched the rising cost of tuition. As CUNY¡¯s reliance on tuition and fees grows, rising tuition costs and lack of appropriate aid will have a profound impact on the university¡¯s poorest students and New York City¡¯s poorest residents.

Issue Two: Composition of Student Body

As many traditional safety-net programs shrink in the wake of neo-liberal policies and the recent recession, cuts to student financial aid and rising tuition costs present unique challenges to low- income students, particularly students of color (Bowen, 2012). In recent years total college enrollment has reached an all time high. However, the growth has occurred mainly in more affordable yet less prestigious two-year community colleges rather than in four-year universities. Four-year schools continue to have racial gaps in both enrollment and graduation rates of students of color (Fry, 2009; Graves, 2008).

Poverty is linked with race and gender, and women and people of color are disproportionately more likely to be poor than male and/or white individuals (Abramovitz, 2009; Spriggs, 2009). In 1991, when undergraduate tuition at Hunter College was $1,950 per year, black and Hispanic students made up 59.5% of the freshman class. By 2009, tuition had risen to $4,600 and the number of black and Hispanic freshman had plummeted to 30.7% (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011). Overall enrollment of black students in the CUNY system dropped by 5% during that same time period. More women continue to enroll in CUNY than men at a rate of nearly three to one, mirroring national statistics. However, women¡¯s enrollment at CUNY experienced a slight decrease from 1991 to 2009 with the largest decrease in enrollment occurring among Hispanic women (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011b).

Impact on Human Rights

The imposition of tuition on CUNY students in 1976 and the subsequent rise of tuition costs directly contradicted the clause of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that dictates that States must implement ¡°the progressive introduction of free education¡± (UN General Assembly, 1966). Imposing tuition eliminated one of the largest and only viable sources of free higher education in the United States. Consistent increases indicate that ¡°progressive introduction of free education¡± is unlikely (Malave & Hill, 2003).

A tuition-based network of colleges and universities is not a violation of human rights law, nor are privately funded, tuition-based parochial primary and secondary schools a violation. In addition to the privately funded schools that require tuition, the U.S. federal and state governments provide free public education for all K-12 students. This means that all children in the U.S. have the opportunity to get an education regardless of their family¡¯s socioeconomic status. Individuals looking to attend college do not have the same opportunity. Requiring tuition creates an additional criterion, as students who are not able to pay rising tuition costs are less likely to enroll and graduate from a university that they otherwise qualify to attend. This violates numerous treaties that declare higher education should be based on merit and individual capacity (UN General Assembly, 1948; UNESCO, 1960; UN General Assembly, 1989; UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1999b). Without a tuition-free university system like the current model for K-12 public education, individuals from marginalized communities have fewer opportunities than members of the dominant culture.

Financial aid has failed to progressively meet the needs associated with rising tuition costs (Lupatto, 2006). International human rights law calls for action on the part of the state. Programs like Pell grants, the Tuition Assistance Program, Stafford loans, and other student financial aid measures are frequently on the chopping block at the federal, state, local, and university level. This creates further obstacles to both enrollment and graduation of low-income students (Wilson, 2011; Gunderson, 2002). As seen with Pell grants, measures that seek to increase student financial aid fail to adequately cover the rising costs of tuition even when excluding additional fees such as books, housing, and meal plans. While numerous private loan programs are available, they fail to promote human rights and represent a private-sector solution instead of much-needed government action. The student loan system allows for economic oppression by imposing years of debt on young people at the beginning of their careers.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women calls for the eradication of gender-based discrimination in higher education (UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, 1992). The U.S. has mostly eliminated traditional roadblocks that prevented women from receiving education. Women comprise one-half to two- thirds of the national student body and the female student body at CUNY has risen comparatively (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011). However, women still encounter significant challenges in a tuition-based system. With more women living below the poverty line than men, women also receive more Pell grants. Therefore women will face significant challenges if those grants are reduced (Inside Higher Ed, 2009; Abramovitz, 2009). Women are also more likely than men to be the primary caregiver to their children, and many women must pay for childcare while they attend school particularly if they enroll in evening or weekend courses of study (Sax, 2007).

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a treaty ratified by the U.S., calls for the elimination of racial discrimination in regards to access and attainment of higher education (UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 2002). Poverty and the ability to pay continually rising tuition rates, even with financial aid, are closely linked to race. Fluctuating minority enrollment rates demonstrate the negative impact that the tuition imposition and subsequent increases have had on students of color.

Shifting Demographics

At the undergraduate level, estimates of degree attainment by race approximately match New York City population estimates. White students receive 39%, black students 26%, and Hispanic students 24%. of Bachelors and Associates undergraduate degrees. This balance is not maintained past the undergraduate level with 56.6% of Masters, 63.1% of JDs, and 70.3% of Doctorates going to white students (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011). The percentage of the New York City population that identifies as Hispanic (27%) equals the percentage of Hispanic students earning Associates degrees at CUNY. However, the rate of degree attainment for Hispanic students drops off dramatically as the level of schooling increases, from 21.5% of Hispanic students earning four- year degrees down to just 6.9% who earn Doctorates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011a; CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011). The rate of degree attainment for black students experiences a similarly dramatic drop. With each successive level of education, the percentage of white students who attain degrees increases while the percentage of students of color declines.

Since the early 1990s the Hispanic population at Hunter College has progressively decreased while the population within CUNY overall has been stable. The population of black students at Hunter College has decreased by nearly 30% and by 4% within the CUNY system overall. Enrollment of white students in CUNY has also declined slightly and enrollment of Asian students has increased by 4% (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011).

Tuition Increases and Discrimination

Regardless of intent, increases in tuition represent a form of racial discrimination because those increases have a disproportionately negative impact students of color. Furthermore, differentiated tuition at the graduate level acts as an additional deterrent to low-income and minority students interested in post-graduate schooling. In spring 2011, the Schools of Social Work at Hunter and Lehman Colleges received one of the highest tuition increases within the CUNY system (Social Workers for a Free CUNY, 2010). In recognizing the impact that escalating tuition has on accessibility and diversity, one must recognize that more low-income students and students of color may be pushed out of the Masters of Social Work programs than other graduate programs. Differentiated tuition pushes the CUNY system even further from the UN ideals that demand that higher education be available on the basis of merit and individual capacity (UN General Assembly, 1948; UN General Assembly, 1966; UN General Assembly, 1989; UNESCO, 2009).

The imposition of tuition at nearly all colleges and universities in the United States means that enrollment is not based on merit or individual capacity alone. Enrollment and degree attainment are deeply influenced by an individual’s race, gender, and socioeconomic status. At present, government financial aid fails to bridge the gap between tuition rates and student need. Institutions such as Hunter College, where students of color once made up nearly two-thirds of the student body, have seen dwindling enrollment of students of color. Regardless of the intent, the effects of the 1976 tuition imposition on the CUNY system has resulted in racial and economic discrimination. This violates the UN treaties that call for the elimination of discrimination within higher education.

Possible Solutions

As illustrated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has recognized education as a basic human right (UN General Assembly, 1948). While the U.S. has made a commitment to ensuring that all K-12 students have access to this basic right, the same mentality has not been extended to higher education. Allowing only those who have the resources to pay rising tuition costs to attend college reinforces the idea that higher education is only a right for those who can afford it. Changing the culture of elitism and the beliefs about who deserves a place in academia could have a substantial impact on both activism and policies surrounding tuition and financial aid. Changing the culture is a long-term, transformative goal that may be essential to adhering to many UN treaties. Unfortunately long-term transformative work fails to meet the current needs of New York¡¯s poorest students. As the New York State¡¯s budget deficit is the primary cause of the decline in state and city aid to CUNY, solutions must include concrete tactics for closing gaps and shortfalls in New York State¡¯s revenue.

Financial Solutions

In 2010, the CUNY budget was $2.6 billion and New York State faced a $9 billion deficit (Ryan & Steele, 2011; Editorial, 2010). While legislators in Albany looked to trim spending in public education (Editorial, 2010), Green Party Governor Candidate Howie Hawkins pushed opponents to discuss ending the state¡¯s rebate on the Stock Transfer Tax. The Stock Transfer Tax that was established in 1905 placed a 1% tax on every Wall Street stock transfer, mirroring a similar policy on the federal level. In 1979 the state acquiesced to the demands of wealthy traders and began the current rebate program, funneling billions of dollars in state revenue back to Wall Street. In 2010, the Stock Transfer Tax rebate totaled $13 billion dollars. This was enough to close the entire state budget gap and fully fund the CUNY budget while still creating a surplus (Green Party of New York State, 2010).

In Canada, politicians in the Liberal Party have looked at using tax grants to boost student income. One proposal would replace tax credits that students, parents, and grandparents are able to claim for tuition costs with ¡°direct quarterly cash grants totaling about $1,000 a year to all students¡± (Canwest News Service, 2008). Additionally, 200,000 students would be awarded $3,500 per year based on need to offset tuition costs. The policy would also provide grants of up to $4,000 annually to 100,000 people from groups that are traditionally under-represented in higher education (Canwest News Service, 2008). The adoption of a similar tax-based grant program in the United States, along with the Pell grant program that is already in place, could assist all students including those from both middle and working class families in affording higher education. The Liberal Party¡¯s proposal also extends the period of time available to students to pay back loans interest-free from six months to two years (Canwest News Service, 2008). This provision would likely be beneficial to middle- and low-income students in New York City as well.

Legal Solutions

Possible solutions also exist within international and domestic legal systems. Blake Frederick, a student at the University of British Columbia, filed an official complaint with the United Nations in 2009. Frederick argued that by progressively increasing tuition, the federal and provincial governments in Canada actively violated the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by not ensuring that postsecondary education is accessible to all. Unlike the United States, which never ratified the treaty, Canada signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. Frederick¡¯s initial complaint ¡°urged the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to appoint a special rapporteur to look into human- rights violations in Canada¡¯s education system¡± (Hui, 2010). Three days after filing, Frederick withdrew the complaint after students voiced outrage and the student council unanimously voted to retract the complaint. While Frederick argued that the imposition of escalating tuition placed barriers to unequal higher education, students criticized the complaint as elitist and out-of-touch (Loren, 2009).

CUNY students involved in the struggle against the 2011 tuition increases also sought legal action. Unlike Frederick, the six students involved did not petition the United Nations but instead filed a lawsuit with the New York State Supreme Court. The lawsuit argues that the recent tuition increases are illegal because the increases were authorized through the chancellor¡¯s office rather than the board of trustees (Hartocollis & Moynihan, 2010). While a representative from the chancellor¡¯s office stated that the case was without merit, the State Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. When asked why the students were filing a lawsuit rather than taking to the streets in protest, supporters replied that they were tired of hosting rallies that were seen as ineffective and were high-risk for students of color who faced arrest and prosecution in a racially prejudiced criminal justice system (Hartocollis & Moynihan, 2010).

Student Activism and Resistance

While some CUNY students have gone to the courtroom, others have taken to the streets. Inspired by and in conjunction with the Occupy Wall St. protests that began on Sept. 17, 2011, students formed a CUNY-wide General Assembly in October to address rising tuition costs and the associated forms of oppression. On Nov. 21, hundreds of students converged at Baruch College in Manhattan during the Board of Trustees meeting. While some students were able to give testimony in the meeting, hundreds more peacefully protested in the lobby and outside the building. Police met protestors in the lobby, physically forced the crowd out of the building with batons, and arrested several students (CUNY General Assembly, 2011). Protestors returned to a second Board of Trustees meeting held at Baruch on Nov. 28 to protest both rising tuition costs and the treatment of protestors on Nov. 21. The building was closed at 3pm and students were banned from entering (Johnson, Tan, & Jumpertz, 2011). Students and Occupy CUNY supporters protested outside the building where more arrests were made.

In 2012, students formed activist groups including Students United for a Free CUNY and New York Students Rising. In Feb. 2012 the groups hosted a “State of the Students” Address outside of City Hall in order to provide a list of demands to the City Council (NY1 News, 2012). On March 1 students from CUNY and other universities marched across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the National Day of Action to Defend Education (Firger, 2012). On March 5 students, faculty, and community members took the fight to Albany where they lobbied lawmakers, rallied inside the Capitol, and protested outside of Governor Cuomo¡¯s office (Gallagher, 2012). Students from Hunter College¡¯s School of Social Work have been active within this new student movement and have been present for several CUNY General Assemblies and major events.

A Note from the Administration

The CUNY Administration is not seeking solutions that would cap or lower tuition. On March 14, 2012, CUNY Newswire released a statement asking students to visit http://www.supportcuny.org. The website asks students to email members of the New York State Senate and Assembly to provide funding for community college base aid, child care, construction and renovation, and more. The website does not mention reducing or preventing tuition increases (Support CUNY, 2012). A link is provided to Chancellor Matthew Goldstein¡¯s testimony before the Joint Budget Committees. In the testimony, the Chancellor states that the new tuition policy allows families to plan ahead and encourages students to advance their education. There exists no sign of slowing the tuition increase or advancing the ¡°progressive introduction of free education¡± (City University of New York, 2012). Instead, the new tuition policy is referred to as forward thinking and ¡°the envy¡± of other university systems.

Implications for Social Work Practice

In the United States the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) state in their Code of Ethics that social workers must challenge social injustice. The social justice principle states that social workers must engage in social change efforts that focus on issues of poverty and discrimination and must ¡°strive to ensure… equality of opportunity¡± (NASW Delegate Assembly, 2008). This principle aligns with United Nations treaties that stress both equal access to higher education based on merit and the removal of discriminatory barriers to higher education. Social workers have an obligation to understand as much as possible about a client¡¯s circumstances and environment in order to provide policy-sensitive and policy-related services (Jansson, 2008). In regards to higher education, social workers can focus on college readiness and scholarship programs to remove barriers for young people. Unfortunately these practices alone are not sufficient. Working within policies that are inherently oppressive may help clients in the short-term, but does not eradicate the root causes of inequity in higher education, such as racism and classism. Social workers can utilize leadership development, community organizing, advocacy, and restorative justice to rebuild a system that supports the well-being of our clients (Jansson, 2008). Social workers can work to generate policy changes that place limits on escalating tuition prices, progressively introduce free higher education, and support the creation of more grants and interest-free loans.

Social workers can also work with high schools, colleges, and universities to create programs that encourage wider participation of students of color and students from low-income families. Programs can range from college preparatory curriculums to transformative programs that work to make universities more hospitable to marginalized groups. In utilizing transformative strategies, social workers must make a conscious effort to work with rather than for members of oppressed and vulnerable populations (NASW Delegate Assembly, 2008).

The International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) place even greater emphasis on the need to work with marginalized and vulnerable communities to ¡°challenge barriers, inequalities and injustices that exist in society¡± (Sewpal & Jones, 2004). Additionally, the IASSW and IFSW call for activism that utilizes both current political structures and models of transformative change. Both international social work organizations place greater emphasis on political activism than the NASW.

The tenet that social workers work with oppressed communities poses a complex problem in relation to tuition escalation. Social workers work primarily with persons of color and of low income, and those groups are the primary communities impacted by rising tuition rates both in New York City and across the United States. As discussed, the percentage of individuals from these communities declines steadily at each successive level of education. CUNY¡¯s Schools of Social Work at Hunter and Lehman Colleges received one of the largest tuition increases in spring 2011 at over 16%, in comparison with the 5% increase at the undergraduate institutions (Social Workers for a Free CUNY, 2011). As a result of differentiated tuition, students of color and students of low-income face even greater barriers to obtaining a Masters of Social Work through CUNY. Rather than encouraging practitioners from diverse communities to join the profession, the CUNY tuition increases have increased the level of inequity within social work itself. The struggle for fairness and equity in the CUNY system has also become a fight for fairness and equity in the social work profession.

At Hunter College School of Social Work, the students have aligned with labor, student, and faculty unions in the fight for affordable education. When tuition increases for spring 2011 were announced in November 2010, students formed the organization Social Workers for a Free CUNY (Social Workers for a Free CUNY, 2011). This group is dedicated to exposing and opposing the racism, classism, and sexism that are inherent in the increases and are antithetical to the ethics of social work. Greater social worker-led activism is needed to fulfill domestic and international ethical demands of the profession. as well as to promote a more equitable society that adheres to the tenets of international human rights law.


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About the Author

Katie Bowers is a graduate of Cornell University, where she studied Development Sociology and Education, and a 2012 graduate of Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, specializing in community and youth organizing. She was born and raised in Binghamton, New York. She can be reached at katiebwrs@gmail.com.

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1 Comment

  1. Fantastic post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Many thanks!


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