In 2011, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature passed “SUNY2020,” a multi-part higher education bill which, among other things, increased tuition annually at the State University of New York and the City University of New York. At the time of first passage, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers promised to use the additional tuition dollars to enhance student services, including but not limited to; academic mentoring, counseling and advising. The tuition dollars were not intended to backfill budget holes, but rather enhance students’ education.
An important provision of SUNY2020 was a “maintenance of effort” provision which stipulated that the government would not reduce SUNY’s or CUNY’s general operating funds in following budgets. This was to ensure that increased tuition would not be offset by decreased state support. However, the “maintenance of effort” provision excluded certain mandatory, predictable cost increases.
As a result of that loophole, there has been mounting legislative – and anecdotal evidence – that the state support for public colleges has been eroding and that, in fact, tuition increases have been used to backfill budget holes in college budgets.
In recent years, New York lawmakers have approved legislation – subsequently vetoed by the governor – that would have enhanced the pledge to maintain the state’s efforts to provide adequate funding for the State University and City University systems.
Had the legislation been approved by the governor, inflationary and collective bargaining costs would be covered by the state and would have reduced the need for siphoning away tuition dollars to make up the difference.
In addition, the SUNY2020 law mandated that public colleges pick up the cost of tuition for the poorest students, if state aid did not cover that cost. And that is exactly what has happened. The Tuition Assistance Program’s (TAP, the state’s biggest financial aid program) maximum award is set at $5,165, while tuition at SUNY has increased to more than $7,000 for the combined Fall and Spring academic semesters. That “gap” between maximum TAP award and current tuition (roughly $2,000) must be covered by the college, thus increasing its financial stress and also making it more likely that tuition dollars are used to cover the difference.
Unfortunately, there is growing anecdotal evidence that colleges are struggling to cover these additional costs. From hiring freezes to department reductions, colleges across the state are publicly reporting that they must cutback instructional and student services to balance their budgets.
The erosion of state support and the creation of growing funding gaps is translating into an erosion of student services. Students have experienced firsthand difficulty in getting into the classes they need to graduate, limited services such as library hours, and advisement gaps across the CUNY and SUNY systems. The consequences have been especially troubling for students interested in graduating on time.
For example, according to a CUNY survey, over one-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.
In addition to attending colleges that are increasingly strapped for resources, what is that cost to college students and their families? According to the new analysis, public college students are paying over $2.5 billion more in tuition thanks to SUNY2020. That’s right; students have forked over billions to cover rising tuition costs while colleges are struggling to pay their bills.
So what should be done? The responses should come in two ways: Freeze the increases in tuition costs and increase state support. Governor Cuomo and the Legislature should make sure that next year’s higher education budget:
- Freezes all tuition rates at senior and community colleges.
- Enhances funding for CUNY and SUNY by closing the “TAP Gap” and include mandatory costs in its base funding equation through an enhanced “maintenance of effort.”
- Enhances financial aid programs like TAP and the Excelsior Scholarship, so that they are available during winter and summer sessions, increase maximum awards, and expanding programs for use beyond covering tuition.
- Expands funding for student services and opportunity programs – such as CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) which is a model for free public college, addressing the all-in costs of higher education.
Investing in higher education is investing in New York’s future. The state’s budget has grown by more than one-quarter during the period of SUNY2020. It’s time that students got some cost relief and services received a big boost from the state.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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