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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Cuomo's Higher Education Budget Gets Scrutiny

With over a decade in office, through his control of the budget process and state agencies, Governor Cuomo owns New York’s higher education policy.  As lawmakers considered his eleventh annual budget last week, there was a focus on the increasingly precarious financial situation for some of New York’s colleges and universities.

The governor’s proposals to limit support for community colleges and eliminate state support for independent colleges and universities were discussed by lawmakers and members of the Cuomo Administration, unions, faculty, and student representatives. 

In terms of support for private colleges, for decades the state has provided assistance through the Bundy Aid program.  Bundy Aid provides unrestricted financial support to independent colleges and universities in New York.  The program’s goals are to: (1) Maximize the total postsecondary educational resources; (2) Promote and foster the diversity of educational options; and, (3) Provide increased access to these programs by assisting institutions to minimize tuition increases.

For many of the smaller independent colleges without the enormous endowments of the large universities, Bundy Aid can make the critical difference in helping campuses to manage their budgets.  Despite these benefits, Governor Cuomo proposes to eliminate Bundy Aid.  The program has been funded at $35 million annually for many years.  In addition, the governor proposes not to restore any of the state support that was withheld from the campuses since the pandemic began. 

Unless lawmakers restore the aid, many private colleges will be facing serious financial difficulties.  And those difficulties are already showing up.  For example, recently Concordia College in Westchester announced that it is closing, and the College of St. Rose in Albany announced that it is eliminating 25 academic programs and laying off 20 percent of its tenured faculty. 

Financial problems are not confined to the independent sector.  Public colleges are facing hard times, too.  Community colleges are under extreme stress.  In an analysis released by the New York Public Interest Research Group, the state’s policy of stagnating support, coupled with rising tuition, has contributed to financial difficulties for these important community-based institutions.

The review examined the last decade of community college tuition increases and student populations at the campuses.  NYPIRG’s review found:

  • The rate of community college tuition hikes over the past decade far outstrips inflation.
  • There has been a significant shift in who bears the burden of paying for college education.
  • Over the past ten years, more than half of the SUNY community colleges (16 of 29) had tuition rate increases that exceeded the rate approved for the SUNY four-year public colleges and universities.

At last count, there were more than 50,000 fewer full-time SUNY community college students in AY 2019-20 than there were in AY 2010-11.  And without exception, every SUNY community college lost population, some with catastrophic enrollment declines.
Much of what ails the state’s community college system is the result of stagnating local populations, particularly among young adults.  However, there are steps that the state can take to bolster support for community colleges and offset the costs borne by college students and their families.  The new state budget should ensure that:

  • Full restoration of the 20% reduction in state aid that has been “withheld” since the pandemic began.
  • State support for community colleges must at least match the tuition costs borne by college students, on a full-time equivalent basis and to freeze the cost of tuition.
  • State aid should set a financial floor for covering the costs of community colleges.
  • New York’s TAP financial aid awards should be raised to ensure that the tuition needs of low-income students are covered by the state.

Of course, the budget debate this year is largely driven by anticipated revenues – a significant portion of which is supposed to come from the federal government. 
But shortchanging colleges and universities not only makes attaining a college education more difficult for some students, it also can devastate local communities.  Colleges employ lots of people, local businesses provide lots of services to colleges, and students who go to school provide significant sales tax revenues as they spend their money on local small businesses.

Undermining higher education options for students as well as creating job losses and depressed business activities while ignoring taxing investors who are making money hand over fist on Wall Street, is a wrongheaded policy.

As the budget season heats up, let’s hope that the Legislature can reset state priorities – one that is forward looking and one that invests in higher education.

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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