Karen Magee: Public Higher Education Deserves A Brighter Spotlight

Apr 28, 2016

In this year’s race for the White House, candidates have addressed college affordability and student debt – two issues that are vitally important to New York families.

Yet, there’s a related issue that often slips under the radar and, frankly, deserves much more attention – the state’s failure to adequately fund SUNY, CUNY and its terrific network of community colleges.

In smaller upstate communities like Plattsburgh, New Paltz and Oswego, SUNY campuses are essential economic engines. They create jobs and generate business opportunities – from pizza shops to high-tech start-up companies – for tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

In our larger population centers like Albany, Buffalo and New York City, CUNY and SUNY campuses are on the cutting edge of research, and – like their brother and sister campuses – serve as a ladder to the middle class and good-paying jobs for their graduates.  The state’s community colleges are affordable, accessible and provide critical job-training in emerging green-energy fields, such as solar, wind and battery power.

While there were some gains for higher education in the just-completed budget, unfortunately state funding for SUNY and CUNY has been essentially flat – when you consider inflation -- since the end of the great recession. That has put a lot of extra pressure on SUNY and CUNY to raise tuition to cover costs. In essence, the state has been passing on its higher education costs to middle class families.

That’s something that needs to be corrected with strong maintenance-of-effort legislation.

As the state’s economy recovers – and the state’s budget coffers overflow with multi-billion-dollar surpluses – we’d also like to see New York State take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly invest in New York’s public higher education systems.

The state should create one-time, multi-million-dollar endowments for SUNY and CUNY, which in the future can spin off revenue to support full-time faculty.

Other systems have them. The University of Texas system, for example, has a $24 billion endowment. The University of Nebraska system’s endowment is $1.6 billion.  But, the SUNY and CUNY systems don’t have endowments to build even stronger faculties to serve students. That’s a shame.

The state should also be addressing problems with diversity at SUNY by implementing new faculty recruitment programs and stand behind its SUNY teaching hospitals, which train health care workers and offer top-notch medical care for all New Yorkers.

The state must invest more in CUNY campuses in New York City, which traditionally have been a door to opportunity for immigrants and working families. This greater public investment would make CUNY less dependent on tuition revenues which, in turn, would protect students’ access to college.

We’re looking for the state to invest in capital funding to address CUNY’s aging infrastructure, and to invest in its people with increased state money to support a fair and reasonable contract for CUNY’s faculty and professionals.

Just about every New Yorker has some connection to SUNY, CUNY and their local community college. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure New York’s public higher education systems remain strong, accessible and affordable to all.

When the spotlight of the presidential campaign fades away, that’s a message we hope will stick in Albany. 

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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