New York’s powerful budget director recently accused CUNY officials of misleading him about plummeting enrollment — and questioned why they’re seeking hefty hikes in state and city aid given the lagging figures.
State Budget Director Robert Mujica was at a Fiscal Affairs Committee meeting when he was told of last year’s significant drop in students at the six community colleges in the City University of New York system.
Officials told Mujica, who also serves as a CUNY trustee, that enrollment had cratered by 22.5 percent at the schools in the past two years: 12.5 percent last year, during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, and an estimated 10 percent during the current academic year.
Enrollment at CUNY’s 19 four-year senior colleges and other centers also dropped an estimated 3 percent this year, the officials said.
“I question the enrollment numbers because I remember last year when I asked this question, when we were putting the budget together, whether or not we would have enrollment declines,’’ Mujica said at the virtual meeting Oct. 4.
“The answer I got was, ‘No. …. We were not projecting enrollment declines.’ That obviously was not the case.’’
The lower enrollment comes as CUNY officials are seeking a 16 percent increase in state operating assistance and a 20 percent boost from the city, as well as more capital construction dollars, for their spending plan for the 2022-2023 academic year.
CUNY is requesting $416.2 million in additional state and city aid, bringing its total operating budget to $4.2 billion, which includes federal money.
The extra dough would cover such expenditures as 1,075 new full-time instructors, redesigning more than 1,000 courses and expanding program and recruitment efforts with the city Department of Education, CUNY says. About 70 percent of CUNY’s students come from the city’s public school system.
Mujica was the only trustee to oppose asking for such large increases amid significantly fewer current students. He abstained from voting on the budget plan.
“We’re serving 20 percent less students on the community-college side” and fewer elsewhere, too, the budget director said.
He added that it’s unclear how CUNY plans to address its enrollment issue, “which is really existential to the university,” with any additional money.
“You cannot say it’s just the pandemic,’’ he said of the low enrollment, noting that a smaller student body has been an issue for several previous years, too.
Responding to Mujica’s criticisms, CUNY Finance Director Matthew Sapienza told the budget director during the meeting that the projected enrollment numbers had been wrong because it was difficult to predict what the student population would be during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Sapienza said there was a 30-year trend that closely linked student enrollment at community colleges to unemployment figures and the economy.
When unemployment is up, more students tend to enroll in community colleges, and vice versa.
The pandemic “changed that dynamic” because though unemployment went up, student enrollment “went the other way,” or down, Sapienza said.
Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez said the proposed increase in faculty would help retain students at CUNY’s community colleges because professors would be able to spend more time keeping them engaged and advising them on academic or personal problems.
Asked about Mujica’s criticisms, a CUNY spokesman said, “We understand Trustee Mujica’s concerns, and we look forward to working with him to expand opportunity as we advance the budget through the process.”
Mujica, through his Budget Division spokesman, sought to soften his criticism of CUNY when The Post asked if he wanted to expand on his comments.
“The committee meeting, where the Budget Director has abstained on budget votes in the past, was an opportunity for public discourse on the proposed budget,” said Mujica spokesman Freeman Kloptt.
”Given how critically important CUNY is to opening opportunity and strengthening our economy, and with enrollment declining for CUNY, SUNY, and nationally, the Budget Director specifically wants to understand how new investments in the proposed CUNY budget will address fundamental elements like student enrollment declines and retention issues that predated, but were accelerated by, the pandemic before the budget request is sent to the state Legislature for approval,” said Mujica spokesman Freeman Klopott.
Mujica — whom Gov. Kathy Hochul retained as budget director after disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation over a sexual harassment scandal — has an unusual dual role in CUNY.
Cuomo appointed Mujica, an alumnus of CUNY’s Brooklyn College, as a trustee to CUNY’s governing board in 2016, raising questions among CUNY insiders that Mujica was installed there to protect the governor’s interests rather than CUNY’s.