Free Tuition Back Then? Not at Night

With grades below B, they were average students by the standards of academia. But the students who attended night school at New York City’s public colleges — often rushing to classes after a full workday — were anything but average. Diverse in age, income and life experience, they not only spent their evenings striving toward their college degrees and future careers, but unlike their day school counterparts, they paid tuition for the privilege.

For some 40 years, starting during the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of these night students paid tuition, better known as “instructional fees,” to attend the colleges’ Schools of General Studies.  Without the support of modern day financial aid programs, they worked toward their degrees or to raise their grades to the level required to enter the colleges’ baccalaureate programs, where the tuition was, famously, free.

Hunter College’s North Hall in 1963.

They were students like Toni Reinhold, now a high-ranking editor at Reuters, who put herself through night school at City College by freelancing for the Daily News and local radio stations. Marty Markowitz, now Brooklyn Borough President, began his career as the longtime, activist president of the Brooklyn College Evening Division’s student government. His fellow night-school student, Stu Bykofsky, edited Brooklyn’s night-school newspaper, ken; he is now a metro columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News. Night student Stephen Somerstein became an aerospace physicist, designing and building earth and space-observing satellites after obtaining his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.

Many started out in night school because their high school GPAs didn’t make the cut for day matriculation. Others had the marks, but like most night students were obligated to work during the day.

“It was people rushing from the subway to get to school and rushing back out to get to their families,” Markowitz recalls.

The fees collected from night-school students became significant, and necessary to help the public college system meet the pressures and costs of an ever-growing demand for higher education as enrollment soared. In fact, the Schools of General Studies not only played a key role in creating more opportunity, they provided a precedent for how the municipal colleges of New York could fund its expanding system in the face of explosive student demand, by combining affordable tuition and public support.

“The Evening Session was, and would remain, the most significant single structural innovation of the College’s history,” wrote Florence Margaret Neumann in her 1984 dissertation, Access to Free Public Higher Education in New York City: 1847-1961. “It would increasingly become the critical mechanism for the fulfillment of CCNY’s mission and the expansion of access to public higher education,” providing the same opportunities to working students that more privileged students enjoyed.

The Schools of General Studies were phased out in the early 1970s when tuition charges were dropped for all evening students while evening courses were continued. In 1976, amid the pressures and politics of New York City’s dire fiscal crisis, tuition was established for all CUNY students. State and federal financial aid was made available to students soon after.

Today, a greatly expanded CUNY system, serving record enrollments approaching 270,000 degree credit students, offers tuition-free education for nearly six in 10 full-time undergraduates thanks to federal Pell Grants, state TAP awards and CUNY aid.

Furthermore, philanthropic and private donors have funded some $700 million in scholarships through the Invest in CUNY Campaign, which has raised $2.325 billion to date. Combined with an affordable tuition that is well below the national average for public colleges and universities, and a fraction of the cost of private college tuition, CUNY offers one of the best values in higher education in the nation.

By the end of 1925, City College’s night enrollment had soared to 9,480. The following year, when the Board of Higher Education was established to administer New York’s public colleges, the charging of tuition and fees was stated to be within its purview. Under BHE policy those meeting requirements for freshman admission could enroll for free as matriculants; all others could, by paying tuition, register as non-matriculants.

Then came the Great Depression. In 1932 — with some urging a shutdown of the public colleges, then enrolling more than 36,000 degree-credit students — City College President Frederick Robinson proposed limiting admissions in order to maintain enrollment at a constant level. The emergency measures placed the best students in the free Day Session; others whose average was between 75 and the requirement for Day Session would attend at night as part-time “limited-matriculated” students, paying $2.50 a credit until they had the marks for full matriculation. Non-matriculants were charged more.

The Schools of General Studies expanded to New York’s other public colleges, steadily increasing in enrollment, and over time totaling hundreds of thousands of paying students. During the 1950s — the approximate midpoint of the SGS era, Board of Higher Education Chairman Gustave Rosenberg wrote in the Board’s 1957-1959 annual report:

“The municipal colleges without their night Schools of General Studies are unthinkable. For here the ideal of community service is most directly realized, with the colleges serving today’s working citizens in addition to preparing tomorrow’s. It could only be in a night college that one finds a bus driver who wants to sell electronic equipment, a dance instructor whose goal is to become an insurance agent, a secretary who looks forward to teaching Spanish, a man who loves the Greek language and wants to study it regardless of credit, a mother of six who wants a college degree.”

In 1959, when Stu Bykofsky entered Brooklyn College’s night school, night-school students paid up to $300 a year, equal to about $2,500 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator. Even with tuition, the public colleges offered extraordinary value. New York University, for example, charged $900 per year in 1959.

“Every single student of the School of General Studies was there because he or she wanted to be there, and they were paying for the privilege,” recalled Bykofsky.

“For its time it was affordable,” said Borough President Markowitz, who attended Brooklyn at night from 1962 to 1969, after graduating from Wingate High School in Crown Heights. He recalls instructional fees of $10 or $18 per credit, depending on whether a student was “non-matriculated” or “limited-matriculated” and working toward an Associate of Arts degree. Those who earned the AA and had the grades could then continue for free towards the baccalaureate degree.

The night schools had their own administrators and many part-time faculty members, unlike the full-time tenured professors prevalent in the day. Student activities were limited, but there was an SGS student government, which Markowitz led at Brooklyn for eight years, and there were intramural sports and night-school newspapers.

Students grabbed the opportunity.

A retired elementary school science teacher who serves as Brooklyn Borough Historian, Ronald Schweiger graduated an “average student” from Lafayette High School in 1962 before earning a two-year degree from New York City Community College, now City Tech. He attended City College’s Evening Division for a year, then transferred closer to home, to Brooklyn. He worked in a textile company during the day, attending school  at night. “It took me eight years to get my B.A.,” he said.

Night school, he said, “gave me opportunity to go to college and get my teaching degree, which was the rest of my life.”

By day,  Markowitz worked as a salesman and employment counselor. By night he immersed himself in student government at Brooklyn’s SGS. “It helped me enormously in my political career,” he said. “I learned how to work with different age groups, there was ethnic diversity.”

It was a time of protest — “the anti-Vietnam War protests and black power, and women’s rights,” and social change. “In 1962 it might as well have been ‘Father Knows Best’ times,” Markowitz said. “When I left, it was psychedelic — crazy time.”

Bykofsky was living with his parents in the Marlboro Houses near Coney Island when he entered Brooklyn’s SGS, first as a non-matriculated student. “I did so poorly in Stuyvesant High School that I was expelled,” but quickly “got my smarts and woke up” in night school, he said, raising his grades as he focused on English and writing.

He joined ken, the night-school paper, editing copy in the basement of LaGuardia Hall “until midnight, when they threw us out.” Through a fellow editor, he landed a job as a copy boy at the World Telegram and Sun. “That door opened for me because I joined ken,” said Bykofsky. “There were three or four of us from ken working at the World Telegram and Sun.”

Within a year of entering, Bykofsky had the grades for free matriculation, but he stayed in night school. “I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Day school meant quitting my job at the World Telegram and Sun.” He earned his AA in 1964. In 1966, after seven years at SGS, he was offered a job as managing editor of a trade magazine, and left New York to start his long career in Philadelphia journalism.

It had all begun in the night school. “I feel very indebted to the education I got there and to the opportunity I got there,” Bykofsky said.