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Citizens Union

The Money Crunch in Higher Education

• Educating All New Yorkers at CUNY
• New York as College Town

Despite brick-and-mortar signs of renewal, there is a quiet crisis in higher education in New York City. It is what I call the permanent recession.

In looking at the last decade, the Higher Education Price Index - the cost of buying the services and goods that colleges purchase - has gone up 34 percent. But in the same period, New York State's support for the operating expenses of public institutions of higher education increased only 21 percent. The result: Quality has been impaired. There are fewer fulltime faculty, deteriorating facilities, out-of-date technology, increased class size. With fewer course sections, it takes students more time to graduate.

In New York a large number of private institutions compete for students with public colleges and universities. These private schools are also feeling the pressure, despite average annual tuition that is now over $20,000.

In a recent 50-state "report card" on higher education by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education , New York received an F for affordability of its colleges and universities. Even with New York's sizeable Tuition Assistance Program, the percentage of family income needed to pay for college here remains quite high. In addition, New York got only a C+ on the report card for "participation." Substantial gaps remain in the representation of individuals from diverse racial and ethnic groups and from low income groups in attending and completing college.

The governor is the chief policymaker for higher education, both public and private. In the past, former Governor Nelson Rockefeller was at the forefront of support for both public and private colleges in the state, with a particular focus on the expansion of the State University of New York. At the time -- after World War II, and especially in the 1960s-- most people believed that higher education was a public benefit, that all New Yorkers would be served by an increase in its capacity as well as an easing of access to higher education.

This view seems to have been replaced by a personal benefit model, perhaps fed in part by the increased earning power that higher education provides individuals. The personal benefit model promotes increased tuition and therefore increased debt as students and their families pay an ever increasing percentage of the costs of college attendance.

Governor George Pataki's leadership has been particularly problematic, though school officials rarely say this on the record. The inordinately delayed state budget process makes it much more difficult for both public and private colleges to plan their academic years in an orderly way. Approval of the capital plans for needed facilities improvements as well as aid to community colleges still remain unresolved.

The most responsive policymakers for higher education these days may well be the members of New York City Council, particularly in their support of the City University of New York and its students.

The fall semester has arrived with more than the usual bustle and excitement. Though last year was an unusually tough one, especially at City University because of state budget cuts and a particularly large tuition increase, this academic year promises to be better.

But don't be fooled. Yes, state and city aid to CUNY each rose by over nine percent, but buried in state support was a $65 per student reduction in funding - and there is concern about funding restrictions later this year. Yes, City University has started a push for hiring new fulltime faculty, but the numbers of fulltime faculty remain down dramatically from three decades ago. And while higher education has been documented as a growth industry that could be an engine of New York's economic future, threats of yet more public disinvestment appear down the road. The recession in higher education in New York is like a chronic cough; there may be an occasional respite, but, given current conditions, it is sure to persist.

Frederick S. Lane is professor of public affairs at Baruch College of The City University of New York, where he teaches a graduate course in The Administration of the Urban University. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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