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Op-ed: A comeback for our students, our university and our city

Photo courtesy of CUNY

The COVID-19 pandemic took a great toll on the New York City communities that are home to many CUNY students, many of whom faced the loss of employment and other economic setbacks while struggling to pay the rent and feed themselves and their families. They persevered and, through it all, did their best to maintain their academic progress. 

One measure of the economic strain faced by our students can be seen in the increasing amount of unpaid tuition and fees, which nearly doubled at CUNY during the 16 months since the pandemic’s onset.

In response, CUNY joined Governor Andrew M. Cuomo this week in announcing a groundbreaking initiative to eliminate up to $125 million in unpaid institutional debt for at least 50,000 CUNY students who experienced pandemic-related economic loss. 

The CUNY Comeback Program will use federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds to clear students’ outstanding tuition and fee balances. It will provide needed relief to our students, their families and their communities, and its impacts will bolster New York’s overall economic recovery. It will enable our students and recent graduates to push forward in pursuit of their educational and career objectives, and it is one of the country’s largest student debt forgiveness programs of its kind.

The program will help students like Ifeoma Okeke, the daughter of immigrants and a political science major at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who recently learned that she would be unable to begin her senior year because of an outstanding tuition balance to the college of just over $2,000.

“We’re all struggling,” said Okeke, 21, whose two siblings also attend CUNY colleges. Their dad died of prostate cancer in 2015, and their mom is a nurse. “I’m financially responsible for myself,” she added, “so I didn’t have the money to pay back the expenses.” 

During the pandemic last year, Okeke temporarily lost her job at a grocery store and that’s when she fell behind. The CUNY Comeback Program will eliminate Okeke’s balance to the University and allow her to continue her education this fall, staying on track to fulfill the hopes her parents had for her to graduate. I’m proud that we can help them realize their dream.

I view the CUNY Comeback Program as more than just good policy; it also affirms the recognition that challenges still exist for many New Yorkers, and it helps to fulfill the moral imperative that is implicit in CUNY’s historic mandate to provide access to a quality education for all New Yorkers, regardless of background or means.

Tens of thousands of students determined to have hardship and recent graduates who were enrolled at the University from Spring 2020 through Spring 2021 and accrued tuition and fee balances during that time, will have those unpaid debts to the University wiped clean. In most cases, outstanding student balances will be cleared without an application process in early August, allowing students to register for Fall semester classes, obtain their official transcripts and continue their educational and career pursuits.

Thousands of other students who accrued debt during the same period, but were not eligible for financial aid, may have their unpaid debt forgiven by applying based on financial hardship.

And in order to assist students who paid tuition and fee charges out of pocket since the Spring 2020 semester and do not owe any amount to CUNY for that period, such students may receive a $200 enhanced emergency grant through the American Rescue Plan Act, on top of any other federal Student Emergency Grant allocation that the student will be entitled to in Fall 2021. 

While the CUNY Comeback Program is focused on unlocking the future potential of our University, it’s also an acknowledgement of the way in which our community performed during the pandemic. I remain inspired by the determination and resilience of our students, faculty and staff.

CUNY’s program isn’t a panacea for all the stresses our students continue to endure, but I’m confident it will provide them with a needed measure of relief and another reminder that CUNY will always have their backs, even in the toughest of times.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.

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