CUNY Navigates Changes to Program for Students in Need

On Wednesday, the City Council’s higher education committee heard testimony from CUNY officials about the program’s future if federal COVID-19 funds run out 

The Wellness Center at LaGuardia Community College, photo courtesy of LaGuardia Community College.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a student named AJ visited Bronx Community College (BCC)’s Access Resource Center, which offered healthcare, financial aid and academic guidance to many of its students. AJ came to the office, according to the Center’s Student Life Manager Dedra Polite, not knowing if he would be able to continue on with his studies. His wife had recently died and he had four young children. Outside of parenting and attending classes, AJ also worked a full time job at night, in order to help pay for his education. With his wife’s recent passing, he was unable to go to work, since he had to be at home with his children. 

Polite said after meeting AJ, whose last name she withheld for privacy reasons, her office immediately stepped in. 

“That’s what the office is for,” she said. “We work with different departments, external agencies, as well as our internal agencies, to make sure that the students receive financial assistance, apply for many student emergency grants. We spoke with the professors. They work together with us to make the students successful.”

On Wednesday, the New York City Council held an oversight hearing for Single Stop Successor Programs, which made centers like Polite’s possible at BCC and at seven other City University of New York (CUNY) schools. The Council’s Committee on Higher Education heard testimony from three officials: Denise Maybank, CUNY’s vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment; Patricia Simino Boyce, university dean for health and human services; and Polite.

According to CUNY’s University Dean of Special Programs, Sunday Coward, CUNY’s partnership with the Single Stop Successor Program began to strain at the beginning of the pandemic when the services moved completely online. Then, Howard said, in 2020 the CUNY system ended its eleven year contract with the Program, which was created by the Robinhood Foundation in an effort to aid low-income New Yorkers. 

In its place, the CUNY system has launched a new program: CUNY Cares. This program is in the process of being piloted at three Bronx CUNY schools: Lehman College, Hostos College and Bronx Community College. Polite said the official program just started this week. 

Financed by the state and city, as well as grants from nonprofit organizations, the CUNY Cares program aims to offer a more cohesive and far reaching version of the Single Stop Successor Program, according to testimony from the hearing. 

City Councilmember and Chairperson of the Higher Education Committee, Eric Dinowitz, explained that the Single Stop programs were designed to be a one stop shop for students to receive myriad services, including housing assistance, financial assistance and immigration assistance. 

Dinowitz’s concerns about the transition from Single Stop to CUNY Cares come down to the funding. 

“One of my concerns is that 36% of the funding looks like it’s from one time COVID relief funds,” Dinowitz said. That is “21% from federal subsidies, like the federal COVID stimulus and 15% from a small business services grant that was related to COVID.” 

After yesterday’s hearing, he said the committee plans to hold another budget hearing next month to dive into the finances of CUNY. 

“I’m interested in making sure that this pilot program works, that the data is shared, that they’re proactive and that they’re receptive to change,” he said. “Meaning if something’s not working, then they go back and fix it, and get it right.”

CUNY is the nation’s largest university system, providing half-a-million students with education annually on the 25 different educational campuses they operate over all five boroughs. One out of every four of these students suffered from food insecurity during the pandemic. 

One school has already made the transition away from Single Stop, but is not yet part of the CUNY Cares pilot program that is currently only being offered at the Bronx schools. LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens has replaced Single Stop with the LaGuardia College Access for Retention and Economic Success (CARES) program. According to Regina Varin Mignano, the Associate Director of the Wellness Center at LaGuardia, 62% of the students she serves come from a family or household income of less than $25,000. Currently, Varin Mignano helps coordinate mental health services such as individual and group therapy for enrolled students. She said her office partners with the LaGuardia CARES office in order to make sure students are able to get all the resources they need. 

“About one in four LaGuardia students receive support from LaGuardia CARES program, which is roughly about 5,000 students a year,” Varin Mignano said. “You can just imagine the volume of students that come through, and besides food, it gives out toiletries, household items, dental floss, child care items.” 

Public Relations Manager for LaGuardia, Elizabeth Streich, said that funding for its CARES program comes from the New York City Food Bank, CUNY, the Caroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, college donations and private donors. She said 25% of the funding comes from the Petrie Foundation and 25% comes from CUNY, while the other donors make up the remaining fifty percent. Streich said that the Program Director of LaGuardia CARES, Rhonda Mouton, gives anyone who comes and says they’re hungry either food from the pantry or a voucher to eat a meal on-campus. 

“They said ‘I’m glad I came here and I didn’t have to go to …  public welfare to apply for benefits,’” Varin Mignano said. 

Varin Mignano said her office offers 16 free counseling sessions over the course of the academic year to students, in addition to all of the programming offered through the CARES program. Since the start of the pandemic, she said her office has also received funding from the federal CARES Act. For some students at LaGuardia, reaching out for support can sometimes carry a stigma, Varin Mignano said. 

“I think the stigma of asking for help is a challenge for us,” Varin Mignano said. “For mental health, or for the need for food, or the need for kind of attaining housing or any other type of benefits can be a stigma, and what we try to do is we try to break that down as much as possible by having other students share their stories.” 

Looking ahead, Varin Mignano said what LaGuardia needs is simple: money. 

“I think funding for more full-time counselors in CUNY schools is highly needed,” Varin Mignano said. “We had a 29% increase in requests for our services from September to February for our first semester, compared to last year. At the same time, we are actually also superseding our requests for services prior to the pandemic, as well.” 

Varin Mignano said they have six full time counselors serving the student body, with the help of part time counselors, whose salaries are completely funded by current grant funding they have from the federal government. Last week, Varin Mignano said she saw seven or eight students in crisis situations and 24 new referrals for services in one week. 

“If we don’t get any additional funding, what can we do?” Varin Mignano said. “We don’t want to limit ourselves to just crisis only.”