Enough About Harvard. Let’s Talk About CUNY.

The elite media loves to obsess about the Ivy Leagues. But great public colleges like the City University of New York, once dubbed the Harvard of the proletariat, are far more relevant to most people — and infinitely better at serving the working class.

Baruch College, City University of New York. (Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

We’ve been hearing an awful lot about Harvard University lately.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision rejecting Harvard’s use of affirmative action in admissions, President Joe Biden and his top education official, Miguel Cardona, have been criticizing Harvard’s use of legacy admissions, the practice of giving preference to the children of alumni, and filed a complaint against the university. Biden and Cardona — neither of whom hold any elite degrees, which is unusual for those at the top of the US ruling class — are correct: research has shown that the rich have an enormous advantage in gaining admission to Ivy League colleges, and that preference for legacies is a key reason.

At Harvard, 67 percent of students hail from the top 20 percent of the income ladder, while only 4.5 percent come from the bottom 20 percent. The median family income of Harvard students is a whopping $168,800.

But some perspective is in order: hardly anyone, rich or not, can get into Harvard.

Fewer than two thousand high school seniors each year, in fact. Harvard isn’t intended for the masses; it wouldn’t be Harvard if it accepted more than a sliver of its applicants (4 percent).

Sure, making Harvard more accessible to accomplished students of the working class would improve that university, because all institutions are improved by working-class ingenuity and experience. It would also boost those students’ options in life. But the reality is that reforming Harvard’s admissions process — or that of any Ivy League school — would do nothing to improve higher education for most people.

Enough about Harvard. If we want to improve education for the 99 percent in this country, we should talk a lot less about the Ivy League and a lot more about great public colleges like the City University of New York (CUNY).

CUNY truly represents the working and middle classes of New York City. Half are from families earning less than $30,000 a year. Eighty percent of undergraduates are students of color. The system, which includes two-year, four-year, and graduate programs, as well as professional training and continuing education classes, serves over 261,000 students.

And CUNY succeeds where the Ivy League infamously fails: helping working-class students to improve their material well-being after graduation. Every time colleges are ranked on “social mobility,” that is, the ability to help low-income students boost their economic fortunes, CUNY dominates. In one of several such studies, this one released last year, Third Way, a policy think tank, listed ten CUNY senior colleges among the nation’s best on “social mobility” measure, building on the 2017 work of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, whose study was one of the first of many to demonstrate CUNY’s prowess in improving poor and working-class students’ economic prospects.

CUNY is also — by every accepted measure — good. Many New Yorkers know this from attending CUNY, teaching there (as I have), or knowing people who have had these experiences. US News & World Report ranks seven CUNY colleges among the top twenty public universities in the northern United States.

You might think the same establishment that professes such concern over Harvard’s elitism would be rushing to reward the institutions that are currently doing such a fine job of educating the working class. And you’d be dead wrong: New York’s city and state government has been hammering away at CUNY with brutal austerity measures.

In Fiscal Year 2023, CUNY suffered $155 million in cuts, losing 235 faculty and staff positions. The mayor’s budget, released last April, made $41 million annually in permanent cuts to CUNY from 2024 to 2026. The New York City comptroller warned that these cuts would jeopardize many more faculty positions, course offerings, and successful programs, imperiling CUNY’s ability to remain a world-class institution and to serve the working class as it has been and recommended that the city and state restore these cuts.

It wasn’t always this way. Throughout much of its 177-year history, CUNY has been valued and well-funded. During New York City’s social democratic years in the middle of last century — what historian Joshua Freeman calls the era of “Working Class New York” — CUNY had a storied intellectual reputation as the “Harvard of the proletariat.” Until 1976, it was even tuition-free.

Socialists and their allies have been campaigning to go back to those days, calling for a New Deal for CUNY. It’s impressive that CUNY does so well on college rankings and serves so many students as well as it does, with so little resources. But CUNY would be better — and free — if it was fully funded. The New Deal for CUNY had some success, partly due to the growing bench of democratic socialists and progressives in state government, in pressing the state to provide more funding. Still, more campaigning will be needed on the state level, to create more revenues by further taxing the rich, and at the city level, to push the City Council (and, eventually, to send the austerity-loving mayor into early retirement).

We can have great public universities again, institutions that truly belong to the working class. One way to get there is to worry less about the Harvards and more about the CUNYs.