Students Lobby in Albany on Higher Education Action Day 

Photo Courtesy of Emily Clayton

Higher Education Action Day occurs every Feb. 28 and is targeted toward promoting public higher education within the state’s fiscal year budget. This year, students from all over the state gathered to lobby representatives and promote various platform agenda items, ranging from the New Deal for Public Higher Education to more specific financial aid and infrastructure reforms. 

The end goal of Higher Education Action Day is to mobilize students so that by the end of the day, every representative has been met with and lobbied for SUNY and CUNY’s interests for the New York State budget in the 2025 fiscal year. 

New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) joined other lobbyist groups such as Young Invincibles (YI), CUNY Rising Alliance, University Student Senate (USS) and United University Professors (UUP), along with other unions and activist organizations. 

Starting the day with a rally, speakers ranged from student leaders and organizers to assembly members and career activists. The overall message was for students to make direct connections to the representatives, which actualizes the Student, Faculty and Staff Higher Education Platform agenda items that seek to better fund and protect public higher education institutions in New York State.

Zohran Kwame Mamdani, assembly person for the 36th Assembly District of NY, compared the budget deficits and public funding cuts faced by public higher education institutions to the budgets of New York University and Colombia University. Mamdani is pushing a New York State constitutional amendment for schools such as those institutions to begin paying property tax, which they currently are exempt from. So that then the state can those funds directly toward SUNY and CUNY schools and institutions. 

Assemblyman Khaleel M. Anderson, representing the 31st Assembly District, advocated for affordable CUNY school tuition in order to place students on equitable playing fields. Anderson made the specific point that “the state is doing well financially, and so should the students.” 

“We have to invest today so our future is stronger tomorrow.” This investment, according to Anderson, includes investing in students following a budget, which he views as a moral doctrine reflecting the state’s interests and values in education. 

Agenda items for the day ranged across different sectors of the state budget. A key point from the agenda included how “CUNY and SUNY are critical engines for NY’s economy and for racial and economic equity.” This point placed specific criticism on Gov. Hochul’s Executive Budget, which falls short of the reinvestment required to recover SUNY and CUNY from a “generation of disinvestment.”

“Recent investments from Albany have made a difference, but they have not been enough to overcome years of state divestment,” stated the eight-point platform regarding the New Deal for CUNY. 

These concerns all tie into advocating for the New Deal for Public Higher Education. The eight-point platform presented by lobbyists to assembly people over the course of the day detailed aspects of the New Deal for SUNY and CUNY, as well as additional points of concern and development for the 2025 fiscal year. 

The eight points include stabilizing and increasing budgets and funding for public higher education institutions, the restoration and expansion of student support services and financial aid, and stopping the current closure plan for SUNY Downstate Hospital while increasing the funding for SUNY hospitals. 

Victoria Titarenko, a third-year student studying international relations, served as a team leader at the event. Titarenko also served on the Board of Directors for NYPIRG at the state-wide level, and has been involved in NYPIRG’s SUNY New Paltz chapter on campus for three years. 

Regarding the importance of Higher Education Action Day, Titarenko focused on the student aspect of budget deficits, stating how “SUNY and CUNY students are the backbone of New York State. Many students throughout New York wouldn’t be able to afford higher education if it wasn’t for the SUNY and CUNY systems, and unfortunately, our government doesn’t invest enough into the public university system.”

“We hear multiple members of our state government talking about how education is a right, and education is the most divisive factor in families exiting poverty,” Titarenko stated, on what Higher Education Action Day helps facilitate in terms of political change. “We hear this kind of rhetoric, and then it’s not followed up by any action.” Lobbying, in its form similar to the event, forces a more action-based response.

Lobbying from students works in ways separate from employees further into their careers, as there is a greater reflection of what these policies being pushed really mean for people. “Hearing directly from constituents, especially in large numbers, who are passionate, who have lived experiences on various campuses throughout the state, can definitely light a fire under some of the assembly members and Senate members,” explained Titarenko. 

“We’ve seen it multiple times in past years where, right after a lobby day, we enter discussions that eventually lead to spikes to tuition not being included in the budget. This year, we’re trying not only to keep that good momentum going, but to make it so that they increase the budget and they actively fund our universities.”

The stabilization and increased funding to SUNY state operated campuses works to remedy the decline in direct support to SUNY, which was witnessed as a loss of $7.8 billion dollars, or 39%. “Eighteen campuses need a one-time investment of $139 million in total to stabilize their budgets and to prevent cuts to student services, programs, faculty and staff.” 

This funding would be directed to the 18 campuses based on their current deficit amounts. “In addition, a $110 million investment is needed across SUNY to allow campuses to improve their academic programs and student services.”

From Titarenko’s perspective as a SUNY student, stabilizing and increasing SUNY funds does not just aid operation and prevent struggles, but also promotes student success and the new face of the future workforce emerging from higher education institutions. 

“If we want a capable future and a capable workforce, we want capable leaders. They should be able to focus on their academics, not worrying about if they’ll be able to pay rent and buy groceries and make their tuition payment. But that’s the reality we’re currently facing.”