Blair Horner: Higher Ed Shortfall Gets Response

May 23, 2016

The New York state budget approved in April contained some good news for public college students and their families: It added a $100 increase per full-time enrolled student (FTE) in community college base aid over that proposed by the governor—an increase over last year’s budget.  The new budget also restored the governor’s proposed cuts to some financial assistance programs.

In addition, the governor’s proposed extension of a state law that annually increased public college tuition was rejected.  That meant that public college students and their families would not face a tuition hike for the first time in five years.  However, the additional funds that SUNY said was necessary to hold the line on tuition was not included.

That decision left both the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems scrambling.

Here’s some background:  Current law had as its central component annual public tuition hikes that turned out to be $300 per year.  And tuition did go up $300 every year since 2011, totaling a whopping 30% increase for SUNY and CUNY students.

As part of the deal to hike tuition, the state agreed to a “maintenance of effort” promise.  Essentially, the state promised not to cut its support for SUNY and CUNY, and that the new revenues generated by the tuition hikes would go toward enhancing college programs, not filling in budget cuts. 

But that promise turned out to be a weak one.  For example, the maintenance of effort pledge did not include salary increases for SUNY, which means that $130 million for those increases had to come from somewhere, likely students’ tuition.  And the impact has been real: in 2008, before the annual tuition hikes went into effect, students covered 50 percent of SUNY’s budget; they now cover over 60 percent – thanks to the tuition hikes and the stagnant state support.

In 2010, the state’s overall budget totaled roughly $130 billion.  The current state budget has grown to $150 billion.  The state’s financial picture has improved.  The case for giving public college students and their families a break from large tuition hikes was compelling enough that the legislature acted. 

As mentioned earlier, in the 2016-2017 final State Budget, public college tuition was frozen at current rates, which helped curb the financial hit to students and their families from tuition hikes over the past five years.  However, the final state budget did not add any significant new state monies.  Both the State University and City University systems will have to somehow cover budget shortfalls unless state lawmakers act before the end of the legislative session.

Whether Albany responds is not yet clear, but the chairs of both the Senate and Assembly Higher Education committees have introduced legislation to respond to the public college budget shortfalls.

Their matching legislation mandates that the state ensure that public higher education funding is enhanced, not cut for the State University of New York and City University of New York systems.  The bills also expand the definition of what the state’s support should cover to collective bargaining, fringe benefits and other items to that maintenance of effort.   

In short, the legislation ensures that the state will spend more to boost support for higher education.

This legislation acts to fill the SUNY and CUNY budget gaps.  Given the extraordinary increase in state revenues over the past five years, it makes sense that the priority of the state should be to enhance its support for public higher education, instead of hitting up college students and their families.  This legislation does just that – it fills in a budget gap left as a result of the final budget agreement and does so in a way that is fair and reasonable. 

Now that the two higher education committee chairs have developed a response to the budget shortfalls at SUNY and CUNY, the question is – will Albany act?  Will the Legislature embrace these ideas and will the governor approve them?

A failure to act will hurt public higher education and the state as well.  It is, after all, the state’s investments in higher education that helps create a skilled workforce and an informed citizenry. 

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

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