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Doing the same thing and expecting a different result

Albert Einstein is often credited with making the observation “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” So it is with New York’s approach to higher education, trying the same policy over and over and expecting different results is a failed approach.

The state’s system of higher education is in deep financial trouble. Far too many community colleges, four year public colleges as well as private ones are facing declining enrollments – some significantly – and receiving at best stagnant state financial help.

Decades of state neglect – and worse – have taken their toll on New York’s higher education sector. For example, the roll out of the higher education policy named “NYSUNY 2020” in 2011 resulted in nearly constant hikes that raised tuition rates by more than 42%. When factoring in inflation, the automatic tuition hikes at the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) far exceeded the growth in the economy. And while students and their families were asked to shoulder more of the tuition burden, the state did not keep up its end of the bargain to increase state funding.

In fact, policies adopted under NYSUNY 2020 created widening gulfs between the financial needs of colleges and the funding levels provided by the state. Prior to 2011, New York would increase the maximum TAP award to match the state’s public college tuition. This protected the lowest income students from the impacts of tuition hikes. In addition, students attending independent colleges and universities would benefit from enhanced affordability by boosting TAP support.

The state’s NYSUNY 2020 law de-coupled the maximum TAP award from rising public college tuition rates and decreed that the colleges themselves would have to supplement financial assistance to the lowest income students. This hole – the “TAP Gap” – cost millions of dollars every year that had not been borne by colleges over the past decades before. Laudably, the governor and Legislature eliminated it in last year’s final budget. However, the financial damage caused by the prior years’ gaps was not restored. Those previous years’ policies have undermined the financial strength of public colleges and universities today.

As a result, even prior to the pandemic, the SUNY system was losing undergraduate enrollment from its 4-year colleges and community colleges, which continued through the pandemic. Only SUNY’s four University Centers escaped this enrollment slide. For institutions inside SUNY that are overly reliant on tuition dollars, lost enrollment can translate to financial insolvency quickly. And that day is rapidly approaching. All but six of the twenty-five state-operated SUNY campuses have structural or projected deficits. In total, these institutions have an aggregated deficit of $160 million.

The experience in the independent sector was similar to SUNY. During the pre-pandemic period, larger colleges and universities saw growth in the student populations, where smaller ones saw losses. The pandemic has made it worse for the smaller private colleges, most notably with central New York’s Cazenovia College announcing it will permanently close after the spring 2023 semester, two years before the college’s 200th anniversary.

The governor’s budget plan unfortunately does too little to reverse the trajectory of New York’s system of higher education. Moreover, she has proposed policies that contributed mightily to the decline. Raising the costs by hiking public college tuition while freezing financial aid will only shift more of the costs of attending college to families and further undermine efforts to increase enrollment. Furthermore, freezing state support for both the private and public sectors will do little to help keep struggling colleges afloat. Local economies will be collateral damage of this short-sighted approach.

Therefore, shortchanging higher education falls into the Einstein definition.

The final state budget should take steps to make colleges – both public and private – more attractive to would be college students. A few ideas would be to freeze public college tuition and commit to a multi-year increase in state support to help balance SUNY’s (as well as CUNY’s) books. In addition, return the state support to private colleges to 1990 levels – rather than providing assistance that is one-third of what it was thirty years ago.

A smart approach would put more resources into financial aid programs in order to offer services that help to attract and keep students. Look to modernize the 50-year-old Tuition Assistance Program. The students of 2023 are similar, but not the same, as the college students of 1974. Increasing assistance as well as coverage for non-traditional and part-time students could also go a long way toward meeting the needs of today’s generation of students and improving their job prospects and the state’s economy.

We know how this movie ends. It's time to stop doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s time for New York to reverse the college financial “death spiral” and do something innovative.

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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