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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Higher Ed Policy As The New School Year Begins

Colleges and universities are kicking off their Fall semesters across the state.  As the summer winds down and the dorms open up, it is a good time to review how state policies are impacting higher education.

The case for public investments in higher education is compelling.  A college-educated workforce is in demand; a recent Georgetown University study found that by 2018, nearly two-thirds of New York jobs would require a post-secondary education.   What’s more, college-educated workers still earn more than their high-school educated peers – in fact, by an average of $17,500 per year.   Higher education institutions also boost civic empowerment by exposing students to new and enriching experiences.   For one, college graduates are more likely to vote and to volunteer.  For another, higher education institutions house key democracy-building groups such as student government associations and public interest groups who empower students to be active participants in their own democracy and bring about meaningful social change. 

Unfortunately, despite the compelling arguments in support of state investments, the opposite has occurred.  On top of mounting textbook, housing, and transit costs, New York’s so-called “rational tuition” policy jacked-up the cost of tuition at public colleges by over 30% since 2011.  At the same time, state funding had remained largely flat and funding for financial aid programs has stagnated.  Programs like the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) don’t cover college costs for many who qualify and have not kept up with the needs of all students, beyond just the straight-from-high-school-to-college full-time student. This combination has eroded college affordability and has resulted in rising debt for too many college students. 

As the state’s policies have been to increase the cost of attending college and limiting the availability of financial assistance, the income growth of New Yorkers has remained stagnant.  In a recent analysis, nationwide from 2000 to 2014, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees for public colleges in America has risen dramatically. During that same time period, the median American household income dropped.

In New York State during that same period, the cost of public college is up nearly 40 percent, while media income in New York has declined by 3 percent.  Rising college costs have been neither offset by rising wages nor offset by rising state-funded grants.

Rising costs and stagnant support have contributed to another problem: a college student “brain drain.”  According to the New York Times, budget cuts have led to sharply higher tuition in New York State, which now exports far more college students than it imports from other states.   And one can see it in the numbers: last year over 3,600 college students came to New York to attend public college, while over 10,000 New York students left the state to attend college – a ratio of 3 to 1.

Just as New York invests in Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) because full and equal educational opportunity is a public good, expanding investment to higher education will benefit New York’s economy and communities at large. 

Without increased public funding, CUNY and SUNY cannot improve rising full-time faculty-to-student ratios, provide adequate counseling and mentorship services, and fund support services critical for students’ success.  Increased state funding will alleviate future pressure for a tuition hike, provide critical resources to protect the quality of a CUNY and SUNY education, and provide higher education accessibility for all students.

Let’s hope that this academic year sees government policy get it right and that it invests more in colleges and universities.  That’s one investment that has guaranteed payoffs. 

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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