“CUNY matters, education matters, youth voices matter. We are already worrying about the climate crisis, systemic racism, homophobic and transphobic policies, and more. Please take one thing to worry about off of our list.”

Queens College campus

Jeanmarie Evelly

CUNY Queens College.

As juniors at Beacon High School in New York City, naturally, we are constantly thinking about college and our futures. Roughly this time next year, many of us will find out what colleges we are attending. With that comes a lot of stress, as any high schooler or family member of one knows.

What makes us even more anxious is the rising cost of college and the prospect of going into student debt. Choosing a college is one of the biggest decisions a young person can make—it is one that will define our lives for the foreseeable future.

Many of us at Beacon and across the city will choose to apply to the City University of New York (CUNY). In fact, over 80 percent of incoming CUNY undergraduates are New York City high school graduates. CUNY gives people futures, and has historically been a great option for working class people, first-generation college students, and people of color to get a higher education.

However, in recent years, CUNY has been underfunded and understaffed. Years of budget cuts and tuition hikes have been detrimental to the university system and the lives of its students. CUNY used to be free, but in 1976 tuition was introduced and that cost has only risen since then.

What changed to make New York City and New York State no longer prioritize or value its youth? Now, CUNY can’t hire an adequate number of professors and staff to fulfill the needs of students. Many CUNY buildings have crumbling walls and peeling paint.

Moreover, increasing tuition threatens the accessibility of CUNY for lower income students, who make up 60 percent of CUNY’s population. This hasn’t only been an issue for CUNY: for years the state failed to meet its obligation to fund K-12 schools, but now Albany is fully funding Foundation Aid. CUNY should be next! Students, staff, and parents have had enough.

There is a solution: to pass the New Deal for CUNY. We need to fully fund CUNY in this year’s state budget, make it tuition-free again, hire more full-time faculty, advisors, and counselors, and fix outdated and crumbling buildings. Passing the New Deal for CUNY is making an investment in OUR future, the future of current and future New York City high school students who will one day walk through CUNY’s doors. We believe education is a right for all, and passing the New Deal for CUNY helps us make that a reality.

But we shouldn’t just wait for the same politicians who have underfunded CUNY and our schools to act. Instead, you, the reader, should join us in demanding that the governor fully fund CUNY in this year’s state budget! We brought it upon ourselves to show that high schoolers care by petitioning around our school. We collected over 650 signatures, slightly under half of our entire student population, in just two weeks. We also gave presentations in different classrooms about the campaign, tabled during our lunch and free periods, handed out fliers, and reached out to teachers to raise awareness and to gain their support.

Education is not a privilege, it is a right, and CUNY needs to be fully funded to ensure this. But this budget fight is just the beginning. We must also fight against book bans that are eliminating essential elements of education, and take action against right-wing extremists who are attacking the very idea of public schools. Teachers and school staff are the ones actually overseeing our learning, but they are constantly scapegoated by politicians. They too are fighting back, as demonstrated with the recent strike of 60,000 educators in Los Angeles, and we see ourselves as being in a common struggle with them for the future of public schools.

Soon enough we will be the ones taking office, and these types of attacks on public education will not stand. In the meantime, students will act now to advocate for our futures. Gov. Hochul, we are 16-year-olds fighting for our college education while still in high school. How does that make sense?

CUNY matters, education matters, youth voices matter. We are already worrying about the climate crisis, systemic racism, homophobic and transphobic policies, and more. Please take one thing to worry about off of our list. We believe that high school students should feel empowered to take action for the future of our city and country on all these issues.

We call on all high schoolers and our supporters to join us in this fight!

Ava Firestone-Morrill and Elizabeth Cepeda are leaders of Young Democratic Socialists of America Club at Beacon High School in New York City.