Two weeks into the semester at State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, we found ourselves on a week-long vacation. Having no classes gave us the chance to attend awkward Labor Day barbeques with the family back home. Have an obligatory conversation with your quiet uncle that will end in five exchanges. Watch your aunt scream hello and wave metal tongs in the direction of all who dare step past the backyard gate. Kiss each traumatized guest on the cheek. Turn to your brother two minutes later and ask who that person was. Finish the summer the right way.
Personally, I can add having my beliefs and values stomped on during drunken conversations over hot dogs and potato salad between my relatives and their card-carrying-AARP-member-friends to that list. I usually swallow all of the garbage (it goes down easier with beer). I mean, you can only tell your 60-year-old uncle that President Barack Obama is in fact American so many times. But I was truly put to the test two Sundays ago, when the target of attack was the institution that thankfully supports my college education at a lower cost – the SUNY system.
My opponent: a 50-something, nasally friend of an aunt who I had thankfully never had the misfortune of meeting before. Wife of a banker. Born and raised in the suburbs. Irish-Catholic, ready to damn the divorced young mothers and non-believers to hell.
The college discussion begins, and I feel the burger I just ate churning around in my stomach. My cousin is debating whether or not to go to Binghamton or Quinnipiac. Public vs. Private. As I am about to turn to my aunt to tell her what the latest SUNY tuition rates are, my new best friend throws this gem into the conversation:
“Well, I never got involved with that SUNY thing. I only looked at small private schools for my boys.”
My face should not have burned the same shade of red that I often wore during my senior year of high school anytime the topic of where I went to school was breached. I live on Long Island – one would think I’d be used to the snobbery inbred in my ignorant, upper-middle class neighbors and classmates after 5 years. But when you constantly have to defend an institution that is hanging by a thread, it gets a bit frustrating.
Public higher education in the U.S. and New York is at a crossroads. States continue to hack into institutional funding in the face of national recession, with the decisions handed down by the circus act known as the New York State Legislature serving as prime example of the sense of desperation. And yet, public university systems around the country are promoting initiatives and programs meant to boost graduation rates, especially among low-income and minority students.
The vicious cycle is painfully obvious, but apparently needs to be spelled out for our policy makers to understand – how is this possible? How can low-income students afford to even finish school with any sort of degree when their financial aid programs are being cut? How can it happen when they have to fight for every cent that the state is unwilling to give, forced to explain and verify and rehash painful circumstances that lended to their economic situation to get just one more loan? How can they finish school according to the four-year formula when the supposedly cheapest option is becoming too expensive?
What my lovely new friend fails to realize is that there are students fighting for what she considers a lowly choice. Maybe SUNY New Paltz isn’t a place that Joe Six-Pack knows by name. Stephen Colbert will not be speaking at our commencement anytime soon. But this school, much like the hundreds of other state-funded campuses around the country, is supposed to offer a greater gift than an overblown reputation and a cool name and logo on a sweatshirt: a college degree. Public higher education is about opportunity, a chance to make something out of little – all that stuff that Horatio Alger told us that America was about.
But those swere just stories, contrived from ideals that are clearly far from reality. If we public school students do not fight to change that reality by letting our lawmakers know that we’re an important part of the constituency and that our needs for affordable higher education should be heard, families who have money will be the only people with the power to help the next generation get a degree to make more of it.
Is this battle deserving of being associated with some sort of stigma that we SUNY students aren’t as good as our private school peers? Of course not. But it will always be there, and we can do nothing but keep calm and fight that too. Even though “that SUNY thing” seems to be more hurtful than helpful as of late, we’ll have to see it through somehow if we want to keep the whining voices of the silver spoon suburbanites muted.