Sometimes Tuition Increases Are Good News

Almost lost in the welter of legislation to make it through the New York State government policy mill in its closing minutes was some help for New York’s two public universities – CUNY and SUNY.  Having endured hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts in state support over the last three years, they are finally getting some relief (but not from state taxpayers); they will be permitted to raise tuition by $300 per year for the next five years.  This may not appear to be a big deal unless one puts the new revenue opportunity into context. 

The two university systems, with over 650,000 students between them, are among the most important linchpins of New York State’s long term economic prospects and frankly, they have been budgetarily starved for years.  Over the last three years, SUNY, for example, has lost $500  million in state support, amounting to 20 percent of its operating budget.  Even with the new tuition revenue, only $50 million of that loss will be restored in the coming year, and $250 million by 2017.  Both university systems’ officials are gleeful about the ostensible windfall but, at best, it only gets them half way to where they were before the state’s recent economic and fiscal meltdown.  Further, it remains to be seen how much of the new tuition revenue really translates into more generous budgets for SUNY and CUNY.  Although the new agreement – in soft and essentially unenforceable language – promises “maintenance of effort” with respect to the state’s tax levy contribution, in the past any tuition increases were invariably offset by corresponding – or sometimes larger – reductions in state support.  One can only hope that this time will be different.

For years the state assembly has held up tuition increases proposed by university officials, alleging that this would be financially devastating for prospective students and make college attendance unaffordable.  First off, the charge is hypocritical because the assembly has been raising tuition for years, but rather than authorizing the kind of gradual and predictable annual increases just adopted, it favored huge hikes in the middle of recessions.  In any case SUNY and CUNY have always been bargains, and will continue to be, even with the projected tuition increases.  Even at the end of the five year run of increases, all CUNY and SUNY campuses will be cheaper than any university – public or private – along the Eastern seaboard or New England.  Under the state authorized increases, SUNY’s tuition and fees in 2012 will average $7,200, and by 2017, $8,400 (CUNY’s will be slightly lower).  In contrast, New Jersey’s Rutgers today costs $10,000; the University of Virginia: $11,600 and Penn State: $14,400.  Even the lesser colleges of surrounding states cost more today than any SUNY or CUNY campus will in five years. 

Compounding the bargain for those students opting for – and getting into – the most prestigious SUNY or CUNY campuses, the legislature continues to insist that all undergraduate public college tuition be the same, regardless of campus or program.  Every other state public higher education system in the United States, without exception, has tuition schedules that vary by campus, and usually program, charging more to attend the more rigorous and prestigious “flagships” and charging more for engineering or nursing than say English or history.  For example, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst costs $12,600 while a typical Massachusetts state college charges $7,550.  But students attending SUNY’s highly ranked Binghamton or Buffalo campuses pay the same – even with the new tuition schedule – as those going to Alfred State or Plattsburgh, and those enrolled in City College’s architecture program pay no more than those studying Spanish at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.  Finally, none of this makes any difference for New York’s poorer students because the higher SUNY and CUNY tuition rates are still well within the combined value of New York’s tuition assistance program (TAP) grants and federal student aid such as PELL. 

As a SUNY faculty member, and former administrator of the SUNY system, I am grateful for any crumbs that the New York legislature throws our way.  And, given the unreasonable intransigence of the assembly (Assembly Speaker Silver and Assemblywoman Glick have been the most vociferous opponents of tuition hikes) in the face of pleas from SUNY and CUNY chancellors over several decades for a “rational tuition policy,” maybe this is indeed a signal moment.  For my part, I will uncork my champagne bottle when the state legislature some day leaves tuition-setting – and budgeting in general – entirely to the two systems’ trustees. 

Compounding the bargain for those students opting for – and getting into – the most prestigious SUNY or CUNY campuses, the legislature continues to insist that all undergraduate public college tuition be the same, regardless of campus or program.  Every other state public higher education system in the United States, without exception, has tuition schedules that vary by campus, and usually program, charging more to attend the more rigorous and prestigious “flagships” and charging more for engineering or nursing than say English or history.  For example, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst costs $12,600 while a typical Massachusetts state college charges $7,550.  But students attending SUNY’s highly ranked Binghamton or Buffalo campuses pay the same – even with the new tuition schedule – as those going to Alfred State or Plattsburgh, and those enrolled in City College’s architecture program pay no more than those studying Spanish at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.  Finally, none of this makes any difference for New York’s poorer students because the higher SUNY and CUNY tuition rates are still well within the combined value of New York’s tuition assistance program (TAP) grants and federal student aid such as PELL. 

As a SUNY faculty member, and former administrator of the SUNY system, I am grateful for any crumbs that the New York legislature throws our way.  And, given the unreasonable intransigence of the assembly (Assembly Speaker Silver andAssemblywoman Glick have been the most vociferous opponents of tuition hikes) in the face of pleas from SUNY and CUNY chancellors over several decades for a “rational tuition policy,” maybe this is indeed a signal moment.  For my part, I will uncork my champagne bottle when the state legislature some day leaves tuition-setting – and budgeting in general – entirely to the two systems’ trustees. 

Peter Salins

Peter Salins

Peter Salins is University Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University and director of its graduate program in public policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *