Blair Horner: Predictable Tuition?

Nov 9, 2015

Higher education policy moved back into the news last week when the State University of New York’s Chancellor announced an effort to keep increasing the cost of public college tuition.

The Chancellor urged that lawmakers renew legislation, known as SUNY 2020, which (among other things) allows for annual increases in SUNY tuition. The current law expires in late June of 2016.

SUNY’s argument to allow continued tuition hikes hinges on this statement, "We simply cannot go back to a time when students applied to SUNY without knowing what their tuition rates would be year to year."

The plan would hike tuition as much as $300 per year. The plan to continually hike tuition was originally hatched in 2011. At that time, New York’s fiscal house was still in disorder from the national financial meltdown in 2008-09.

New York, like the rest of the nation, jacked up the cost of going to college to help balance budgets. But those policies have come at a price – the shift from the state coffers to the bank accounts of students and their families has increased the size of college debt. Nationwide, student loan debt is currently over $1 trillion and it is estimated to be $2 trillion by 2025. At New York’s four University Centers, 56% of graduates carry debt averaging over $22,000.

The shift of college costs from the state to students happened in New York as well. Prior to the 2008 recession, public tuition covered about half of SUNY’s budget. Since 2008, state support to New York’s public colleges and universities has been slashed by $1.5 billion. Now, tuition covers more than 60% of SUNY’s budget.

These tuition increases are the result of a so-called “rational tuition” policy. New York’s law, described by proponents as “rational,” hiked public college tuition each year for five years. Tuition at SUNY will have increased by over 40% by the time the law expires at the end of June.

The only thing rational about this policy is that it guarantees increases in the cost of attending a public college. As a result, New York families are paying more – and in some cases adding to an increasing college debt load.

Yet in recent years, the state budget hasn’t faced shortfalls: Its annual budget has swelled from $132 billion in 2011 to $142 billion today. That’s right, while the state has spent 8% more than it did at the beginning of the Cuomo Administration, students have been forced to pay more and the state has shortchanged public colleges in the budget.

The SUNY 2020 deal was predicated on the fact that students would pay more, but that the state would promise to maintain its support for SUNY.

Yet, while the state budget swelled by 8%, state support was stagnant. That stagnant state support does not include the eroding impact of inflation on SUNY’s expenditures. When inflation is factored in, stagnant state support means a cut – and that cut must be made up with other dollars.

Legislation has passed with overwhelming bipartisan support to close that loophole to make sure that the state adjusts its support for inflation as well as other increases in fixed costs at SUNY. The tea leaf readers guess that the governor will veto that bill.

If so, he will further undermine whatever credibility SUNY’s plan for additional tuition hikes may have had.

Irrespective of what the governor chooses to do, there is a more basic question: should students have to pay more just to ensure the “peace of mind” knowing that the tuition hikes come at a predictable pace? Or would they have greater peace of mind knowing that no increases would occur?

The state’s budget has swelled in recent years, the promise in the last tuition deal not to reduce state support was broken, and public college has become less - not more – affordable.

The state should make a new pledge – add support for SUNY, not make the students pay for it.

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

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.