At Lehman College in the Bronx, like campuses across the country, students have to sacrifice just to afford yearly tuition hikes.
This year, junior Michael Bell swore off paying for the subway, just so he could pay for his credits as tuition went up more than $300.
"I actually had to stop taking public transportation. I actually had to buy a bike," he said.
Bell would like to think his higher tuition pays for higher teachers’ salaries, but the CUNY payroll reveals an unexpected surprise. According to an I-Team analysis of payroll records supplied by the nonprofit Empire Center for Public Policy, total compensation for CUNY instructional personnel went down from $715 million in 2010 to $578 million in 2012, a 19 percent decrease. During that same period, CUNY tuition increased by more than 12 percent.
"That says to me the priority of the institution in which we are learning is not the education of its people," Bell said.
Michael Arena, a CUNY spokesman, suggested the university’s recent offer of early retirement for many tenured professors may be a factor in the payroll decline. Between 2010 and 2011, some of CUNY’s highest paid teachers took the retirement package.
Despite those departures, the colleges have been hiring more full-time faculty," Arena said.
The university reported a total of 6,837 full time instructional staff this semester, the "largest number in more than a generation," according to Arena.
Despite having hired more instructors, CUNY administrators did not dispute the I-Team’s findings that total teacher payroll has declined.
In some cases, public universities have hiked tuition at the same time they've launched ambitious capital spending schedules.
Recently, Rutgers announced the building of a new $85 million apartment complex, complete with a boardwalk and giant flatscreen TV that will broadcast campus-wide events.
"The expenditures that we see are not expenditures going on in the classroom," said Mark Killingsworth, a Rutgers economics professor who is active in the faculty union.
"Better and fancier student centers, better recreation centers, bigger athletic programs-- and it's all just a battle to attract students."
Rutgers spokesman E.J. Miranda told the I-Team the new apartments will be financed by room and board fees, not tuition. The new complex, located on College Avenue, will also include academic facilities like a new honors college.
Miranda also pointed out several new building projects are aimed at modernizing academic environments like a new laboratory and business school.
"The construction of student housing and dining facilities are important to meet the growing demand of New Jersey students -- and students from across the country and around the world," Miranda said.
While administrators often have control over the balance between capital spending and teacher payroll, they have less power to decide things like the salaries they pay unionized labor and the subsidies that come from state legislatures.
Professor Ronald Ehrenberg, a Cornell University labor economist who is also a State University of New York trustee, said state lawmakers were quick to slash higher education during the recession, leaving teaching payrolls vulnerable. Worse, Ehrenberg believes education cuts are much less likely to be restored than are cuts to health care.
“When a state spends more on Medicaid, the federal government kicks in a lot of money,” said Ehrenberg. "When a state spends more on higher education, the federal government does not kick in more money. So as a result, higher education always loses out.”
On public university campuses, some union contracts have locked in more generous compensation packages over the decades, and that has left instructional personnel competing for fewer discretionary resources.
For example, CUNY’s unionized furniture movers – known as City Laborers – are now making 50 percent more than they did 10 years ago. Their average compensation is near $75,000 a year, not including benefits. That means furniture movers make more than three-quarters of all the university’s teachers, who are mostly freelance and often don’t have benefits.
Kyle Simmons, the president of the City Laborer’s union, defended the increased compensation for his members. He said pitting educator salaries versus laborer salaries is a false choice.
“I feel the teachers are underpaid, [but] not because my members are making the same amount or a little bit more.”