Blair Horner: Fixing State Support For Public Colleges
In the first year of the Cuomo Administration a deal was struck: every year, for five years, the cost of attending a public college or university would go up no more than $300 and the state would ensure that the tuition hikes would be used to enhance the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems.
As part of the bargain, the state pledged not to use the tuition hikes to fill budget holes resulting from cuts. The tuition hikes, called “rational tuition,” were rational enough – costs did go up every year for the next five years at the maximum allowed -- $300 per year.
Recently, the plan was renewed and the tuition hikes lowered, but the impacts of New York’s policy has become clearer.
On top of mounting textbook and housing expenses, the state’s tuition policy jacked-up the cost of tuition at public colleges by over 38 percent since 2011.
Moreover, the promise of no state budget cuts evaporated due to loopholes written in the law. For example, the promise ignored the costs due to rising inflation, or energy costs, or the result of agreements to raise faculty salaries.
Flat funding from the state has left CUNY and SUNY on the hook for mandatory cost increases like electricity needs, and staff contracts. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer testified that there is a $700 million budget shortfall across CUNY.
This July, the Baruch College President released a statement that they expect a $5 million budget shortfall and are implementing across the board department budget cuts. The announcement also made clear that the increased tuition revenue from the latest tuition hike would cover mandatory collective-bargaining costs.
According to SUNY New Paltz Vice President for Administration and Finance, revenues are simply not keeping pace with necessary increases in expenditure. One factor among others cited was no increases in direct state support since 2012.
The increased tuition costs borne by students and their families at CUNY and SUNY has not resulted in rising quality as promised. As mentioned earlier, the promise was that the tuition hikes would be earmarked for an expansion of support services, course offerings and infrastructural improvements, not to fill in budget gaps as the state pulled back its resources.
Binghamton University is experiencing a 4 percent budget cut at their libraries in addition to a hiring freeze on all staff positions aside from Adjuncts and Teaching Assistants. As a result, the university is not replacing two retiring faculty members in the Department of Art and Design and are putting a temporary suspension on the graphic design minor.
Stony Brook University has enacted a hiring freeze as well, citing an $18.5 million budget shortfall. To save money, this year they eliminated their undergraduate pharmacology program.
SUNY Plattsburgh has seen a 3 percent budget cut this year, resulting in the suspension of the Center for Community Engagement, a program that brought community members onto the campus for cultural events, despite a petition campaign led by students to save the program.
Without improvements in student services, graduating on-time has become more difficult.
Since the state’s main method of offering assistance, the Tuition Assistance Program, is only available for eight semesters, a delay in graduation can cost low- and middle-income students thousands of dollars. According to a CUNY survey, over a third of CUNY students reported not being able to register for a course they needed for their major. Of those students, half couldn’t register because there were not enough seats available.
Why does it matter? Investing New York’s tax dollars into public higher education is a win for individual New Yorkers and a win for the state’s economy, even amid a climate of budget-tightening. A study on the value of SUNY found that for every $1 spent on education, the economy reaps $5 in benefits. College-educated workers earn more than their high-school educated peers – by an average of $17,500 per year for millennials, as found by the Pew Research Center. As wages increase, so do tax revenues which support any number of public services.
Both houses of the Legislature know that the state has been inadequately funding SUNY and CUNY. They have unanimously approved legislation to close the loopholes in state law and enhance funding of SUNY and CUNY. That legislation goes to the governor’s desk this month. With its overwhelming support – college administrators, faculty, students and unanimous approval by both houses of the Legislature – all eyes turn to the governor to fix the state’s funding of public colleges.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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