On top of the many new stresses of COVID-19, SUNY students are facing heightened financial concerns in the face of rising tuitions.

This past Tuesday, Nov. 17, the SUNY Board of Trustees held a virtual meeting where members voted on the SUNY Community College budget. The Board of Trustees has the power to regulate the tuition and fees, as well as the administrative and operating expenses of all campuses. Bradley Hershenson, a doctoral student from the College of Homeland Security, Cyber Security and Emergency Preparedness at the University at Albany and president of the SUNY Student Assembly, was the only one of the 18 trustee members to vote against the budget, dissenting due to the increase in tuition for community colleges.

The meeting was focused on community colleges in the SUNY system, and, thus, does not directly affect the budget of Binghamton University. However, Jacob Eckhaus, Student Association (SA) vice president for finance, SUNY Student Assembly member and a senior majoring in accounting, predicted that the increase in tuition would not be isolated to only the SUNY community colleges.

“It is not clear yet what the exact plans are for universities, but it is likely that the tuition increases would extend to those campuses as well,” Eckhaus wrote in an email. “The specific increase would vary from student to student and would depend on [the] campus, but I and the other students in SUNY [Student Assembly] and across the state feel as if any increase at a time where so many students are struggling is not a decision that is appropriate.”

Shermane Azania Maitland of SUNY Empire’s Student Affairs Committee criticized SUNY’s budget policies, suggesting that emphasis should instead be placed on the enrollment and retention of in-state students.

“The long-term result of austerity can become a spiral of diminishing returns where brand quality is permanently disrupted,” Maitland said. “I’m here to posit: What if we reframed our approach? What if in some areas we did the opposite and engaged in proactive and expansive-based policy, shifting toward long-term strategies for fiscal solvency?”

Following the Board of Trustees meeting, the board held a public hearing where nearly 100 students, staff and state employees voiced their concerns on university issues.

Students from a variety of SUNY community colleges and universities expressed struggles with online learning, “Zoom-fatigue” and poor mental health with this semester’s absence of breaks. Additionally, many of the testimonies opposed the proposed increased tuition and revealed the deep financial struggles of some of the SUNY students.

Before the pandemic, financial instability was already a problem for many students. According to a 2019 survey of 11,000 students by the SUNY Food Insecurity Task Force, 40.5 percent of students from state-operated colleges and 54.7 percent of community college students had experienced hunger during the semester but did not eat because they didn’t have enough money for food.

Now, issues such as these have been intensified by parent and student job loss, medical issues and sudden changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mohammed Islam, a sophomore at Cornell University majoring in industrial labor relations, gave testimony about the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 on students like him and the need for increased financial aid for students.

“In April, my family lost its source of income and both of my parents fell ill to COVID-19,” Islam wrote in his testimony. “Focusing on class assignments became almost impossible as my thoughts surrounding the impaired health of my loved ones, and the lack of financial security of my family were on my mind 24/7.”

The College Savings Foundation, a nonprofit focused on helping families save for college, found that more than half of parents with college-age students reported that one earner had lost a job or had work hours cut, and almost eight percent lost all sources of income. Eckhaus reflected that raising tuition at this time is the last thing that many families would be able to deal with.

“At a time where so many people and families across the state and country are struggling to even put dinner on their table, I have no doubt in my mind that these increases could be a barrier to some students,” Eckhaus wrote. “The SUNY system and [BU] pride themselves on being able to provide an affordable higher education — an education that doesn’t require sacrifices to obtain. By increasing tuition and making our students foot the bill, we’re betraying the students who rely on SUNY and [BU] for that reason.”

Zoe Velez, a junior majoring in nursing, expressed outrage at the continuing rise in tuition that she’s experienced, especially with the new learning situation imposed on the students.

“The fact that they expect students to pay full tuition for a learning experience that is nothing like what we were originally paying for is ridiculous,” Velez said. “They want to raise tuition for a year on turbo speed without any breaks. They want to charge more for the emotional, mental [and] physical burnout they are causing. I just feel like they’re backing us into a corner: Either pay the money or never be able to get a good job without a degree.”