During the first week of classes, hundreds of Queens College (QC) students found themselves scrambling to re-enroll in classes, after the Bursar’s office had manually removed them. On January 26th, approximately 355 students were contacted by the Bursar Office regarding unpaid tuition for Spring 2021. Three days later, the first official day of the semester, the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Retention, Richard Alvarez, sent an email to the QC Department Chairs telling them that 355 undergraduate students were dropped and advised them “to handle students who were dropped from your courses at your discretion.” So not only were students dropped from their courses in the midst of a pandemic, they were also charged with solving the problem themselves by reaching out and working with department leaders.
The email sent out to students January 26th stated “Our records show that you have not yet paid your tuition & fees for Spring 2021 and the deadline for payment has passed. Please note that your Spring 2021 enrollment will be cancelled for non-payment tomorrow, Wednesday, January 27, 2021 after 5:00pm.” The email then continued on to give an explanation and links to follow in order to pay the bill, including how to navigate CUNY-First and how to apply for FAFSA. At the end of the email there was a survey link directing students to tell the Bursar office their plans on how they were going to pay their bills. There is no indication that students would be kept in their classes if they answered the survey provided.
According to a CUNY Queens Professional Staff Congress (PSC) executive committee letter sent to the President, some students were reportedly dropped even after talking with the Bursar office. “One student tells us, ‘I have tried to contact the Bursar, but I have not been able to reach an actual person. They keep telling me via email not to email them.’ This student filed a FAFSA, created a schedule, and has been patiently waiting to be contacted, and now all her courses are dropped.” Since so many students are waitlisted for classes, when these students were dropped, their spots in the class were often filled by someone who was waitlisted.
The Knight News reached out to Media Studies Department Chair Mara Einstein concerning this issue. Einstein confirmed that Department Chairs were sent an email on January 29th at 10:30 am from the Provost alerting them of the dropped students. She took it upon herself to forward the email to the rest of the Media Studies Department faculty so they could assist students. The Media Studies Department manually signed dropped students up for classes. Einstein suggests: “Contact the professor. In our department when students were dropped, it was often in a class that was fully subscribed. It is up to the professor’s discretion as to whether they can overtally the course. If the professor says yes, they will provide the student with next steps. In our department that means working with the departmental secretary to register for the class. In Media Studies, all students are assigned a faculty advisor who can also be a source of assistance.”
CUNY Queens PSC chapter chair David Gerwin told The Knight News that students were not informed that they were dropped from their classes. “Having talked to faculty that helped register students, all the classes just disappeared from their classes when they were logged into their CUNY-First accounts.” When asked if it was a possible technological or clerical error, Gerwin said that it was clearly deliberate. The real error here was the unresponsiveness of the Bursar Office. Gerwin tells us that: “There should have been an email about payment and a clear indication that the survey needed to be responded to so classes would not be dropped. If the survey is not answered then classes would be dropped. No email indicated any of this information to the students.”
Gerwin continued to explain that the Bursar Office is not fully staffed. With staff working from home, there is no one to help with clerical work. The QC Hub, which comprises the Bursar and Registrar Offices, is running with a staff of about 30-40 people when it should be running at 70 people to be considered full. There is also a smaller number of senior staff members since some have transferred to other schools.
According to Gerwin, during the week leading up to classes on January 29th, a number of other CUNY colleges were telling Department Chairs to eliminate sections with enrollments less than 80% capacity. It doesn’t matter how capacity is defined. For example, capacity could be 100 seats or 30 seats. Union chapter chairs and Department Chairs were horrified that sections were being closed on students because they were not filled to the brim.
In a statement from the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Retention, Richard Alvarez, he tells us: “QC recognizes that the pandemic and its effects on the economy have multiplied the pressures on our students. In the last fiscal year, the Queens College Foundation gave out more money in scholarships and awards than during fiscal year 2019. Over the last two years, with the help of the Queens College Foundation, we provided a total of $5 million—a 78.5% increase—to help our students. Additional support is coming, thanks to the foundation’s recent allocation of $2.75 million in emergency funding, which is earmarked for a wide range of issues, including the Bursar holds that prevent students from continuing their education. Students are encouraged to review the Bursar webpage, and the financial aid services webpage.”
CUNY has repeatedly stated that policies during the pandemic are in place to help students through financial troubles. Yet, episodes like this make it difficult for students to trust the Queens College administration.