A plan to give the City University of New York and the State University more autonomy is being praised by the chancellors of those schools. But many in the legislature, as well as advocates, worry the proposal represents a step toward privatization of the two systems and could put their programs beyond the reach of many of the state's less affluent residents.
Gov. David Paterson's Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, would allow SUNY and CUNY more control over how much they charge for tuition, how they set prices for different programs and how they do business in general. Currently the legislature sets tuition and generally reserves tuition hikes for times when the state is in financial trouble -- times like now.
"We have a crazy system in New York in how we finance higher education" said State Budget Director Robert Megna during a recent budget presentation, adding that the system is "at the heart of why they [SUNY and CUNY] haven't been able to accomplish things they wanted to."
At state budget hearings on higher education Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chair Carl Kruger and Assemblyman Joel Miller used the term "privatization" to describe the proposal. Supporters of the governor's initiative prefer to call it "empowerment."
Different Schools, Different Tuition
The legislation would allow the boards of trustees for SUNY and CUNY to implement a tuition policy that would enable them to raise tuition by an amount equal to two and a half times the five-year average of the Higher Education Price Index. That is a nationally recognized inflation index that tracks what drives the price of higher education.
Under the governor's plan, SUNY and CUNY would collect tuition and disburse it to individual universities freely, rather than funneling it back into the state's general fund. Trustees would also be allowed to charge differential tuition rates for different academic programs and campuses. Currently all four-year CUNY campuses charge in-state residents $4,600 a year; SUNY campuses charge $4,970.
Megna said that the plan makes sense but will likely give legislators pause. The plan also will give the universities more flexibility in purchasing and in use of land. Megna relayed a story about two administrators, one from Cornell and one from SUNY, who needed the same device. Cornell got it in six weeks; thanks to the state's control of SUNY's contracts and purchasing it took SUNY six months to acquire the same tool.
"It's a fundamental rethinking of how we should have a stable relationship with SUNY and CUNY," said Megna.
Concerns About Cost
Opponents of the measure like Miller say that Paterson wants to give state colleges the ability to raise tuition themselves, rather than having the legislature set tuition as it currently does, because the state is in financial crisis and can no longer properly fund public higher education.
They say Paterson's measure will lead to steep tuition increases that will hurt low-income families. Miller and other critics worry that differential tuition will lead to lower-income college students being priced out of some SUNY and CUNY campuses and programs.
SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimcher said that SUNY is committed to making all programs affordable and accessible and would use tuition increases and differential tuition responsibly. She and other supporters of the measure say most universities around the country vary their tuiton.
CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein testified that he basically supports the governor's legislation. He said it would essentially institute the kind of rational tuition policy he has been advocating for years. "CUNY has long supported differential tuition by program, informed by market competition and price elasticity," Goldstein said in his testimony. He said the new tuition structure will give students a better idea of what their college education will actually cost.
Miller countered that state has been extremely predictable in the way it cuts funding and raises tuition during tough economic times. "It’s a shame. Its wrong," he said. "But it is predictable." Paterson has proposed cutting SUNY funding by $95 million and CUNY funding by $47 million this year.
More Students, Less Money
According to the Professional Staff Congress, a union that represents CUNY staff, the state's funding for full-time equivalent students has dropped precipitously over the last two decades. In 1990, the state provided about $14,000 per full-time equivalent student. Now that figure has dropped to $9,000. And CUNY has seen its enrollment explode during that time: CUNY now has 260,000 degree credit students, with 65,000 more students enrolled than it had in 1999.
Community colleges have seen the greatest spike. Paterson's current budget proposal would reduce aid to community colleges by $285 per full-time equivalent student. That means tuition for a student attending community college will increase.
And to make things more difficult for students with moderate resources, Tuition Assistance Program funding would decrease by $93 million overall. All students would have their aid reduced by $75, while students studying for two-year associate degrees would have their maximum possible tuition assistance grant lowered from $5,000 to $4,000.
Empowerment or Cop Out?
Groups representing students such as the New York Public Interest Research Group and unions such as the Professional Staff Conference say that Paterson's empowerment act is designed to let the state off the hook when it comes to properly funding public education while making higher education increasingly unaffordable.
"By allowing CUNY and SUNY to set their own tuition levels, free from legislative oversight and public accountability, and by making zero commitment to match any tuition increases with additional state dollars, the governor's proposal essentially takes the public out of public higher education," testified Barbara Bowen president of Professional Staff Congress.
"While the governor is proposing privatizing education he is also proposing major cuts. They are pulling the rug out from under us," Bowen told the Gotham Gazette.
"Public education ought to be funded publicly," said Fran Clark of NYPIRG. By giving the universities more autonomy, the new system will make it easier for the state to impose cuts." Clark said he finds it hard to believe that legislators will rush to support Paterson's proposal. "I don't know of any legislative body that is in a hurry to cut the purse strings."
Legislators certainly seem to be wary of the act. Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Toby Ann Stavisky said she shares concerns that lower-income students may be priced out of SUNY and CUNY. "I am committed to making sure SUNY and CUNY remain an accessible, affordable, quality education."
Sen. Jose Serrano said that public higher education is heading in the wrong direction in New York. "For a generation, CUNY was free, and it produced great attorneys, great public servants," he said, "It really did pay for itself. We got back what we gave ten-fold."
Now, Serrano said, Paterson is looking to let SUNY and CUNY raise tuition without guaranteeing any increase in education aid, and he thinks that is a recipe for ensuring that residents of his Bronx and Manhattan district will not be able to afford higher education. He said that, in effect, will mean that public higher education in New York has failed.
Not many of Paterson's initiatives are finding much support from legislators but Serrano said his analysis of the Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act will come down to how it will affect the communities he represents. "In the end we will look at the numbers and proposals and ask does this promote stability?"
Keeping Public Education Public
"Jonas Salk," said Bowen, bringing up the man who discovered the first safe and effective polio vaccine and was a graduate of the City University of New York. "Think about all the good done by that one person!” She added, “This system is meant to train our next generation of public servants."
Bowen and others are concerned that differential tuition could prompt schools to charge more for such intensive programs such as pre-med or engineering, driving low-income students out of them.
Goldstein told legislators that differential tuitions will mostly be used in graduate programs, and any tuition increase would likely be put back directly into the program. Zimpher insisted that SUNY is committed to making sure its programs are accessible to low-income students.
Bowen said she thinks the financial downturn is exactly when the state should better fund its higher education system. She thinks this is the last moment the state should cede any of its involvement.
The union wants the state to restore $121 million in funding to senior colleges and $39 million in funding to community colleges that has been cut over the last two years. And that is something unions, students groups and university heads can agree on -- they want the state to reconsider all of Paterson's proposed cuts.
"It's crazy during this crisis to make public education less accessible," said Bowen. "We want the legislature to fight back against the proposed cuts. We hope the governor's empowerment act isn't enacted. We want the legislature to restore some of what has been lost. We are well aware the state is in financial dire straits, and it may be difficult, but we need to support public education."