For the first time in years, education advocates say they’re optimistic about their long-standing demands the state reverts the City University of New York system to its tuition-free origins thanks to proposals that will increase their budget.

They joined students, teachers, alumni, and lawmakers at a rally and march in Queens on Saturday, expressing support for the New Deal for CUNY bill introduced in the state Legislature this past spring. The bill, which the state to provide roughly $1.47 billion to carry out, will effectively make CUNY free for all students, relieving the burden of student debt for thousands of CUNY students. Tuition to a four-year CUNY school for in-state students currently runs at $6,930.

"CUNY students are far less likely than their counterparts nationally and elsewhere in the state to encounter full time faculty, and CUNY adjunct faculty are grossly underpaid. CUNY students seek mental health counseling and end up on waitlists, and they struggle to make timely appointments with academic advisors," said Brooklyn state Senator Andrew Gounardes, the lead sponsor of the New Deal for CUNY, in a written statement. "Where CUNY was free for more than a century, today the state takes a billion dollars out of their pockets, money they need for rent and groceries."

Bronx Assemblymember Karines Reyes is the Assembly sponsor of the bill that was introduced in the last legislative session.

On top of making tuition free at CUNY--composed of 25 institutions, including four-year, two-year, graduate and professional schools--the bill would require the hiring of thousands of full-time faculty members, including mental health counselors and advisors. By increasing staffing levels, education advocates say such a move will improve student-to-staff ratios to a goal of 65 staffers for every 1,000 students.

The push for the new deal comes amid CUNY's Board of Directors making its own plea to increase its budget, which stands at nearly $2.4 billion split between the city and state. In October, the board approved a request for an additional $416 million to be added to its operating budget, in which $313 million would come from the state and the rest from the city. The monies would be used to hire 1,075 faculty, of which 500 existing adjunct professors would be given priority. The board also requested a $5.2 billion allocation spread out over the next five years to fix some of CUNY's buildings that have fallen under significant disrepair. CUNY is largely state-funded, with over $2 billion coming from the state, and $459.8 million coming from the city.

By increasing funding, advocates hope to reverse the continued drop in funding at CUNY, which has a total enrollment of 260,000 students. Funding for the system has sharply dropped over the years, placing the cost of school onto its students. Tuition had been free since the system's inception in 1847. It wasn't until 1976 when the city began to charge students to attend its schools, citing steep austerity measures born out of the fiscal crisis. Estimates provided by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the labor union representing CUNY teachers, said funding for CUNY's senior colleges has dropped 38% in the last 30 years. The drop in funding led to steep drops in full-time faculty, with CUNY left relying on adjuncts who were paid a minimum of $5,000 to teach a three-credit class.

"That's much much lower than our peer institutions around the city. And it's much lower, in fact, than the value of the work those instructors perform," said James Davis, head of PSC, who marched alongside students, teachers, alumni, and elected officials on Saturday.

For Davis, the board's demands for increased funds coupled with the New Deal for CUNY signaled a greater outlook for a more financially stable CUNY.

"We feel that's an important springboard to having a strong investment into CUNY in the upcoming [budget] cycle," Davis said.

PSC has joined the coalition group CUNY Rising Alliance to spread the word on the bill package they hope will be addressed when the legislative session begins on January 5th. Governor Kathy Hochul is expected to introduce her executive budget next month.