Blair Horner: The Governor Budget Continues To Hammer College Students

Feb 8, 2016

Five years ago, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature approved annual tuition hikes for public colleges and universities.  At that time, the argument had two simple rationales to support the plan:

First, it was argued that college students and their families wanted “predictability” in tuition costs, so that annual increases could assure them that hikes would never exceed a predictable, annual amount.  That argument was weak, after all what could be more predictable than having no increases at all? 

The second – and more compelling – argument was that the state was facing massive deficits and that it had no money to bolster public colleges.  The students would just have to pay more.

Fast forward five years.  The state has jacked up the cost of attending public college by a whopping 30 percent.  At the same time, the state has frozen its support for the State and City University systems.

In short, the students are paying a lot more and the state is not.

Yet, the governor has once again proposed hiking tuition.  He offers no new state support and wants students to continue to pay annual hikes in tuition.

The argument is the same – the far less compelling argument that students want the predictability of annual tuition hikes.  Which is simply not true.

In fact, it is the opposite that is true – students want predictability all right, but they want the predictability of no tuition hikes, they want the predictability of a state flush with cash adding revenues to enhance higher education.

The second argument used five years ago – that the state is facing deficits – is simply not true anymore.  In fact, according to the state Comptroller, the state has a $1 billion surplus this year.  While $650 million of that surplus is coming from state settlements, $350 million is coming from enhanced tax revenues.

Given that the state is flush with money, why should attending a college cost more?

In addition, the governor proposes no broad-based increases in state financial aid programs, thus leaving either the student, or the college, short.  He does propose to expand financial aid to those college students who are undocumented immigrants, but he proposes no expansions in the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which provides benefits to all students in need.

As a result, the State and City University systems will have to offer financial assistance to needy students, and where will that money come from if not the state?  You guessed it, students.

Why do it?  One guess would be that the governor simply wants to spend less on public college and instead fund other projects.  Public colleges have no economic leverage, they can’t threaten to leave the state, and are, in fact part of government itself.  The students are the least likely group of adults to make campaign contributions, or even vote.

They are politically weak.

There can be no serious argument that making college more costly helps society.  The education level of the state (and the nation) is central to a growing economy – and it is important to ensuring that citizens can adequately participate in the policy debates of their own democracy.

Hiking college costs in an era of fiscal difficulty is bad, but understandable.  Hiking costs in an era of plenty is indefensible.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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