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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Lawmakers Enter The Homestretch On The Higher Education Budget

In the Spring of 2011, Governor Cuomo announced “SUNY 2020,” a plan to allow annual public college tuition hikes.  Called “rational tuition,” the plan’s regular tuition hikes justification was that it would ensure that incoming public college students would know what they were signing up for in terms of future tuition costs.

The tuition plan had another component:  Under SUNY 2020, the state promised that it would not reduce the general operating funds of the State University and the City of New York University systems in following years’ budgets.  The provision, called the state’s “maintenance of effort,” was to make sure that increased tuition would not be offset by decreased state support.  Thus, new tuition dollars were to be used for improving student services, not to fill budget holes created by diminished state support.

Unfortunately, while the state has maintained its level of funding at the 2011 levels, it has not raised funding in the face of rising costs due to inflation, contracted salary increases and rising utility costs.  As a result, despite the promise that the state wouldn’t reduce support for the public university systems, that is in fact what happened.

The gaps in funding led to cuts in student services, reductions in faculty hires, and clawing back of some of the tuition dollars to pay for maintaining existing programs.

The situation has become so bad that the Legislature has repeatedly, and overwhelmingly, approved legislation to fulfill the state’s promise and boost resources for both SUNY and CUNY to offset the impacts from inflation and rising fixed costs.  Governor Cuomo has consistently vetoed that legislation, creating the ongoing budget crunch faced by public colleges.

But the crunch is even worse than it appears.  Another provision of the SUNY 2020 plan was that SUNY and CUNY colleges were required to cover any additional tuition costs not covered by state financial aid assistance. 

Previously, when public college tuition went up, lawmakers ensured that the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) would increase too.  Thus, the poorest college students would get their tuition costs covered by financial aid no matter what level of tuition was charged by the state.

Under SUNY 2020, that system was ended.  Instead of the state providing coverage for the full costs of the annual public college tuition hikes, the colleges themselves now had to come up with the extra money to cover these increased costs for their poorest students. 

The growing gap is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of stagnant state support.  For example, SUNY tuition is $6,870 for this academic year.  The maximum TAP award covers $5,165, meaning that the local campus had to make up the shortfall.  That policy adds to the financial stress felt by public colleges and universities.

This budget “one-two punch” – one from an inadequate SUNY 2020 program and the other from a shift in financial aid from the state to public college – has resulted in serious budget shortfalls on SUNY and CUNY campuses.

According to one SUNY campus administrator, revenues are simply not keeping pace with necessary increases in expenditures.  One factor cited was the lack of increases in direct state support since 2012.  In response to an anticipated $5 million budget deficit, one SUNY campus implemented a 90-day hiring freeze for replacing retiring faculty.

A CUNY college President released a statement that they expected a $5 million budget shortfall and were implementing across-the-board department budget cuts and vacancy-control measures.  The announcement also made clear that the increased tuition revenue from the latest tuition hike would cover mandatory, predictable collective-bargaining costs.

The erosion of state support and the creation of growing funding gaps is translating into an erosion of student services and quality of education.  Students are experiencing difficulty in getting into the classes they need to graduate, limited services such as library hours, and advisement gaps across the CUNY and SUNY system.  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.

Not being able to attend required classes also has the effect of forcing students to stay in college longer – which increases costs and often college loan debts.  And higher tuition costs shifts the burden of public college financing from the state to the families of those attending SUNY and CUNY.

State lawmakers have been hearing a chorus of concern from campus administrators, faculty, and students from across the SUNY and CUNY systems.  By the end of this month, New Yorkers will know if lawmakers are willing to push back on the governor and shift away from New York’s stagnant state budgetary support to a more robust system that increases support in the face of rising fixed costs.  Until then, students, parents, faculty and administrators will be on the edge of their seats.

Blair Horner is executive 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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