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Colleges open up

Over the past few weeks, colleges opened up across New York. And for the first time since the beginning of the covid, colleges opened up more or less in the same manner as they did prior to the pandemic. By and large, classroom instruction is being conducted in-person, students can live in dorms with few restrictions, and campus activities are back in swing.

It’s a good time to review how well they are doing.

For well over a decade, the direction of policy of New York has been to reduce public support for institutions of higher education. Not every year – last year’s budget was notable for increasing support – but a clear trend.

The revenues needed to keep college running – both those in the public as well as the independent sectors – have been increasingly generated by tuition. Over the past decade in particular, the conscious policy of the state was to reduce state supports, including financial aid, and shift those expenses to the colleges themselves.

Until recently, public college tuition was increased at an annual rate, the state’s main tuition assistance program (TAP) was frozen, and the state support for independent colleges (aka private) was slashed to about a third of what it was in the early 1990s.

Since 2010, the State University of New York’s (SUNY) four year and community colleges (but not its university centers) also saw reductions – in some cases staggering – in enrollment. As the number of students dropped, so did revenues since tuition had become an integral part of college financing. Without compensating state aid increases, which did not happen, services had to be reduced. Reduced services, reduced appeal to would-be college students, leading to further drops in enrollments.

Outside of the big universities, the situation at many independent colleges was even more dire. They typically do not have big endowments, so reliance on student tuition and government support kept them afloat.

The situation at the City University of New York has been different. Until the pandemic, its four year public colleges and universities held their own financially.

Why has there been a drop in enrollments? As mentioned earlier, some of it results from public policy choices – the state’s drop in support hurt all but the biggest universities – both public and private. Demographics hurt as well: while not all college students are not the traditional 18-24 year old group, many are and that demographic has declined.

So the policies may make sense IF policymakers are deciding to allow the weaker campuses to “whither on the vine.” But that would cause more harm than good.

There is a strong case to be made that the state should enhance its support even if enrollments have declined.

Colleges and universities do more than simply educate – as important as that is. They are also mini-economic engines that financially bolster local communities with jobs, spending on businesses, and provide a cultural hub that attracts well-educated residents.

In addition to boosting racial and economic equity, public higher education helps to strengthen New York’s economy. The research into the economic benefits of investing in higher education have been overwhelmingly positive.

Yet too often the state’s economic development strategies ignore well-documented benefits and instead spend taxpayer dollars on programs that sound good in press releases, but rarely deliver.

As one think-tank comments, “In New York State, various agencies and entities administer economic development programs with a total cost of $10 billion annually in 2019. While New York is a leader in the scope and amount of its economic development spending, it is not a leader in job-creating projects. It fails to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness of its economic development spending and does not demonstrate that this spending is producing sufficient results.”

There have been, moreover, instances of well-documented abuses of the system. The most obvious was the investigation and prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s office into the “Buffalo Billion” scandal which found that state contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors.

Of course, this is not to say that all economic development projects fail. The point is that current policy in this area disregards the evidence that investing in the state’s higher education sector has some of the best bang for the buck. And that it is this disregard that starves a proven economic engine while steering resources into too often dubious projects.

When it comes to higher education, we can’t overlook that college yields benefits that extend well beyond individual economic returns. A primary function of postsecondary education is to develop college students’ involvement in the nation’s civic life and democratic processes, engender a sense of social responsibility, and develop an appreciation and respect for differences across cultures and peoples. College students are more likely to vote and volunteer, in addition to paying more in taxes upon graduation.

As colleges open up and students stream onto campuses, policymakers should take note of the economic benefits to New York of having a robust, statewide system. Allowing some of these institutions to wither away while spending billions on development schemes that often provide limited benefits makes no sense. Investing in making New York a model for how to make smart investments, train future workers, and enhance its civic life must be its investment direction.

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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