By Mary Alice Miller
In response to last week’s student walkout at Medgar Evers College, several administrators granted an exclusive interview with Our Time Press. “We want the best for the students. We want the best for the school,” said Dawn Walker, Assistant VP in the Office of Communications and External Relations. “We know that we have to do some work immediately and that’s what we are working on. Obviously, where we find we are going to have to make some adjustments, we are absolutely going to be doing that. It is critical that the students get what they need to get to continue their studies.”
In response to student fears that they may be involuntarily dropped from classes if they are not able to pay tuition balances by October 25 as stated in a bursar’s letter dated Oct. 10 Walker said, “We are committed that they will be taken care of so that they will not be forced to leave their studies in a couple of days. It is our commitment that our students are served appropriately.”
According to Walker, students have been contacted about their financial aid a number of times and have been encouraged to come in and speak with their financial aid advisors. “There has been an ongoing process of communicating with them, particularly around financial aid,” said Walker.
The college has announced a series of school-wide financial aid forums for students, advisors and faculty to alleviate student fears and provide information on alternative tuition financing. The Oct. 25 deadline for amended tuition balances has been extended.
Director of Enrollment Management Vincent Banrey explained recent changes in federal financial aid that may have led to mid-semester financial aid adjustments. Students will no longer have access to 18 semesters of Pell grants, which has been decreased to 12 semesters. “The new policy change took effect July 1. They did not grandfather in any students who had already been attending college prior to that change,” said Banrey. “If a student had reached the maximum by the time they had enacted the policy change, it affected that student immediately.” In addition, maximum family income to qualify for full financial aid has decreased from $32,000 annually to $23,000.
MEC administrators were able to look into Krisst Basile’s situation because he gave consent to have his last name published in last week’s OTP report. Banrey stated Basile came into the financial aid office, was seen by staff and “his financial aid situation was corrected back in September.” (OTP contacted Basile, who had not responded by press deadline.) When asked why Basile received an Oct. 10th letter, Banrey said, “In this instance, there may have been crossing of letters.” Earl Cabbell, VP of Administration, added because of weekly updates from Pell, “It might’ve been a timing issue in regards to the Pell grant being applied against the tuition they owe.”
Banrey explained that a variety of issues might impact a student’s final financial aid determination. For instance, at the 5th week of classes the college conducts a census. If a professor notes that a student is not in attendance, financial aid would be impacted.
If a student takes a course “out-of-sequence” or outside their major, (s)he may not be financial aid eligible for Pell or TAP (state aid). When asked how a student could take a course out-of-sequence, Banrey said, “Although the students are advised, they do register for themselves on E-SIMS, a student registration system. They could make an error and take a course that is outside of their major, but when they come back in, we work with them to prescribe the correct remedy and correct the situation.” When asked repeatedly why E-SIMS was not programmed so that it would be impossible for a student to register for a class outside their major, neither Walker, Cabbell, nor Banrey had an answer.
Banrey did say students are allowed to meet with the chair of the department to get a substitution for a particular course. “We do try to work as much as possible with the students to ensure they are taking requisite courses so that they can make progress towards degree completion,” Banrey said. “When we are aware of what the individual student’s situation is, we then try to cater to that particular student and assist them in resolving their individual issue.”
When asked if the administration could work with the finite set of students who received a letter, Banrey said, “That’s a good recommendation. We can work with the bursar, look at the letters sent, then look at those individual students and see what their situations are and have them come in and assist them in resolving it.”
Somehow, students are not convinced.
Evangeline Byars, representing The Concerned Students of Medgar Evers College, said an October 22 Stated Meeting of the Faculty was “commandeered by faculty and students to strongly urge the President (Pollard) to address the ‘budget deficit’ that he announced to department chairs the previous week.” Students are concerned about MEC’s $3 million projected budget shortfall due to a 600-student enrollment reduction. “That announcement, the threatened cut in student services and the receipt of revised (new) outstanding tuition balances for students resulted in the student walkout,” said Byars.
“President Pollard proposes a mass firing of adjunct professors (because adjuncts will not be needed), an increase in our class sizes, and a reduction of course offerings among other ‘solutions’,” said Byars. “Solutions from the Pollard Administration have always proven to be nothing but problems for students.”
According to Byars, the president stated that the “budget deficit” was due to a change in Pell eligibility for grants, thereby trying to suggest that this national issue is primarily responsible for Medgar’s problem. “We reject this,” said Byars. “The lack of student enrollment and the low retention of students stem from administrative disorganization and mismanagement, a lack of student support services, and a strangulation of resources. He even tried to suggest that our student walkout last week contributed to low student enrollment. We were also told that student services and resources were not what we should expect; what mattered was attitude. Is this what is meant by a student-centered college?”
MEC’s student enrollment has seen a steady increase from its inception, from 1,000 students in the 1970s to upwards of 7,000 in recent years. The 2008 semester saw a 500-student increase over 5,500 student enrollments in the fall semesters of 2006 and 2007. In the fall of 2009, student enrollment peaked at 7,080, a one-year increase of more than 1,000 students from the previous fall semester. The thousand-student increase in 2009 was an aberration that took place right after the financial crisis, when millions of jobs were lost nationally and students of all ages flocked to colleges to gain marketable skills. Yet, MEC administration chose to project in the fall of 2010 an enrollment increase of 300 students, above the year before. The fall semesters of 2010 and 2011 saw student enrollment of just below 7000. The current student enrollment of slightly over 6500 is below the administration’s projected 7000 student enrollment.
“In the past years, we have always made our revenue and tuition targets,” said Vincent Banrey, Director of Enrollment Management. Banrey believes “the downward trend in the economy has affected students, especially if they are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, even if they do get financial aid. This trend has not just affected Medgar. It has affected colleges throughout the country.”
Earl Cabbell, VP of Administration, admitted that, “The budget shortfall is because we did not meet our numbers.” He explained that in putting together the annual budget, there is a certain amount of funding that comes from the state and from CUNY, but also a major part of that is tuition and fees from enrollment. “We didn’t make our projected enrollment numbers, which as we have done our calculations, if we don’t do something we will wind up with a shortfall of $3 million, projected,” said Cabbell. “We are having various discussions as to what we can do to increase enrollment for the spring and the summer to make up for the shortfall. We are looking at other ways of reducing some of our expenditures so that we can come in the year with a balanced budget.” He added, “We must come in with a balanced budget.”
In addition to increasing student enrollment for the spring and summer, MEC is “looking across the board to see where there are excesses that we are looking at carefully,” said Walker. “Nothing is definitive. There are conversations with faculty, the chairs and the department heads as well.”
There are several student recruitment programs available to Medgar Evers College.
Last year, MEC’s Educational Talent Search Program received a five-year $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education to provide 750 middle and high school students from central Brooklyn with college awareness and preparation skills. In July, MEC’s Upward Bound Program received $250,000 – the first of a five-year $1,250,000 allocation – to provide college-ready services to 50 students from Medgar Evers Preparatory, Clara Barton, Boys and Girls, and the High School for Global Citizenship whose parents have not received a college degree.
MEC also has access to the Predominantly Black Institution Program (PBIP), an allocation of $550,000 annually which former Rep. Major Owens laid the framework for the year before he retired from Congress. PBIP can be used for a variety of student services, including federal scholarship for hardships. In addition, President Obama has put funding behind his support for community colleges nationally. NYC received $75 million, most of which has gone to Chancellor Goldstein’s New Community College program in midtown Manhattan.
Chair of MEC Faculty Senate Sallie M. Cuffee, Ph.D., has been in ongoing communications with the offices of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, reminding the chancellor that there have been two votes of “No Confidence” from the faculty of Medgar Evers College. The Faculty Senate has questioned a series of administrative decisions that Cuffee characterizes as “a state of fiscal exigency” at the college. Though the administration blames a $3 million budget gap for FY 2012-13 on decreased student enrollment, Cuffee blames “ineffective student-recruiting practices” and the “dismantling of critical student support programs” which negatively impact student retention and timely degree completion. According to Cuffee, the “inability to meet student enrollment targets and service students effectively has led to a devastating impact on the college’s operating budget, forcing the reduction of critically needed academic programs.”
If the solution to the $3 million budget hole is to attract increased student enrollment in the spring and summer 2013, all eyes will be on how the Pollard Administration accomplishes this with diminished student services.
Correction: Christopher Hundley is no longer with Medgar Evers College.