All posts by Peter Salins

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

The Flaws of New York’s Free-College Plan

Lots of applause greeted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s January 3rd announcement, with Senator Bernie Sanders at his side, that New York’s City and State Universities would be “free” for all New Yorkers from families earning $125,000 a year or less.

The Excelsior program, as it is known, billed as the first in the nation, has been widely accepted as a long overdue measure to allow New York’s deserving middle- and lower-income high-school graduates to attend college, and as an antidote to the alarming rise of student debt. But there are problems in the program’s fine print and even the prospect of some undesirable consequences.

Related: Federal Aid Drives up College Costs

At its unveiling, Governor Cuomo said the Excelsior program would enable more than 940,000 New Yorkers to attend college tuition-free.  That figure was determined by simply calculating the number of college-age children among the 80 percent of New York households earning $125,000 or less (not all of whom will necessarily go to college or attend public institutions in the state).

But if all of those eligible students did take advantage of the offer, at current CUNY/SUNY tuition levels of about $7,000 per year, Excelsior scholarships could cost the state as much as $6.5 billion annually.  Yet, clarifying details offered subsequently pegged the number of students that would initially be impacted by the program as a mere 83,000, and the cost to the state just a mere $163 million. Even these curtailed estimates don’t add up; annual tuition for 83,000 CUNY/SUNY students amounts to $581 million.

The explanation for these wildly inconsistent figures is that the Excelsior program is not really a generous universal college-scholarship program for all but the richest New Yorkers, but a modest “topping-off” of already existing state and federal financial-aid programs.  New York’s longstanding Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) already disburses up to $1.1 billion to over 300,000 students.  And federal Pell Grant and other direct aid programs (i.e. excluding student loans) send millions of dollars more to eligible NewYork collegians.

Related: We Have Too Many Colleges So Cut College Spending

Notwithstanding its misleading advertising, what’s wrong with a program that makes college more affordable for New Yorkers?  If the goal is to get more low-income New Yorkers to go to one of the state’s public colleges, we have two problems.  First, the Excelsior program (like most other “free college” proposals) won’t cover the full financial burden incurred by the receiving campuses. The full annual operating cost (i.e. excluding the cost of personnel fringe benefits and debt service on facilities) at CUNY (City University of New York) or SUNY (State University of New York) now runs between $12,000 and $18,000 per student. And that is even with their reliance on an army of low-paid “adjunct” faculty and monstrously large classes.  Since the Cuomo administration (like its Republican and Democratic predecessors) has strenuously resisted increasing CUNY/SUNY appropriations in the face of prior enrollment increases, it is highly unlikely that it is prepared to pay for the extra costs imposed by newly enrolled Excelsior students, causing further erosion in the quality of CUNY/SUNY undergraduate instruction.

On top of that, there is a strong likelihood that many New York high-school graduates attracted to CUNY and SUNY by Excelsior scholarships will be unprepared for college.  We have been there before.  Between 1969 and 1975, the City University, driven by the same ideological rationale offered for the Excelsior program, was both free and had “open admissions” (i.e. no barrier to admission based on high-school grades or standardized test scores).  The results were catastrophic: the CUNY colleges experienced an influx of students needing “remediation” (which didn’t really work), overcrowded classes, a demoralized faculty and plunging graduation rates.  Thus, if the Excelsior program aims to expand enrollment of low-income students beyond current levels, there is a strong likelihood that this experience will be repeated.

The governor and other Excelsior advocates might argue that free college needn’t mean open admissions.  But in that case there is very little evidence that the Excelsior program is needed.  The current New York State TAP program, supplemented by federal Pell grants, already underwrites the entire tuition of all truly poor students.  If, on the other hand, the main impact of Excelsior scholarships is to divert affluent, college-ready students away from private in-state colleges or out-of-state-institutions, it creates an unnecessary entitlement for the non-needy.

In the cold light of day, if the Excelsior program isn’t merely an exercise in liberal symbolism, it is either a colossal waste of money or an initiative that will seriously erode the quality of the state’s public universities – now that they have, after decades of difficulty, become much stronger institutions.  Since CUNY’s open admissions policy was ended in 2000, the academic quality of its campuses has improved dramatically and, despite increased tuition (necessitated by the state’s budgetary stinginess), their enrollment of qualified students has increased, along with their graduation rates.

SUNY, too, during this period, has grown in enrollment and quality.  If New York State has more money to devote to higher education, the most beneficial way of spending it would be to give it to CUNY and SUNY to improve undergraduate instruction at their woefully underfunded campuses.

College Is Affordable—Really

Politicians and pundits who argue that college today is financially unsustainable and functionally obsolete are not just arguing for greater efficiency and more reliance on educational technology, they are pushing for a kind of higher education rationing.  They may not have the courage to say it outright, but what they are really envisioning is a two-tier higher education system for the United States.  They unapologetically expect their own children and those of their broad social tier (affluent, college-educated and upper middle class) to go to college or university in traditional campuses, preferably academically selective ones, with a lot of amenities and student support. But other American youngsters – middle class and poorer – should rethink their post-high school options: enrolling in technical training or apprenticeship programs in lieu of a conventional collegiate experience, and, to the extent they still want or need to go to college, do so more economically, preferably online.  This line of thinking generally rests on evidence of disproportionately rising college costs, growing student loan debt burdens, and poor post-collegiate career outcomes (or the claim that even employed graduates are doing work that doesn’t really require a college education). So implementing the national goal of ever-rising levels of college attainment represents a waste of societal and personal resources.

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Making College Pay Off


In the United States and every other advanced society today, the share of the population with some level of postsecondary education (college in ordinary parlance) is a key indicator of its educational stature.  Here, as in every other aspect of formal education, America once led the way.  Sadly, today America is losing its edge. We are falling further behind the world’s advanced economies with every passing year, especially when it comes to the emerging generation of young adults.  Some of this erosion is due to rapid postsecondary gains in other countries over the last few decades, but a more important reason is that our progress in this sphere – impressive for four decades after World War II – has essentially come to a standstill.

Overall, the American higher education system is still by many standards better than that of any other country.  Unlike its global counterparts, its institutions are more numerous and varied, making the system as a whole marvelously adaptive to the wide range of cognitive abilities and occupational interests of its students – without resorting to the kind of invidious stratification seen overseas; its facilities are more modern, better equipped, and better maintained than those in any other country; and unlike its lower education (i.e. K-12) sibling, it is not a government monopoly.

Continue reading Making College Pay Off

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. 

Continue reading Sometimes Tuition Increases Are Good News

Helping SUNY’s Flagships

Governor Andrew Cuomo proposes giving the four SUNY research universities (Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook) $140 million in economic development funds and – perhaps, if the legislature agrees – permission to levy higher tuition.  The governor is right in viewing SUNY campuses, and especially its most senior ones, as economic engines; indeed, outside of Manhattan, they are about the only economic engines New York State has, adding billions of dollars to the state gross product.  He is also right in supporting higher tuition, because with state tax levy support having been cut by hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three years, all SUNY campuses will wither unless they can offset this loss with increased tuition revenue.  Where I part company with the governor is in the requirement that this potential windfall for the SUNY “flagships” be conditioned on their submitting for bureaucratic review yet another set of academic and economic development blueprints.  The way that major American universities contribute so much to the economy – regionally and nationally – is never through the kinds of high-sounding but vaporous plans they periodically churn out, but through their peer vetted, competitively funded research.  My recommendation: forget about generating more plans; allow all SUNY campuses to raise tuition in small annual increments – and keep all of the resulting revenue – and tie the level of any supplemental “economic development” aid to each campus’s volume of externally awarded research grants. 

Should University Flagships Go It Alone?


Overshadowed by the big political confrontation in Wisconsin is a higher-education story of note: The highly regarded “flagship” Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin seeks permission to secede from the rest of the state public higher education system (yet remain under the state’s oversight and subsidization).  While this is being justified now by the state’s budgetary problems, it is an aspiration long held by Madison and some of its sister “flagships” in other states. Is flagship independence a good idea?  Probably not, but in each state it depends on how its public higher education institutions are currently managed, and what any new-found autonomy might permit or restrict.

Two quite distinct issues are embroiled in this debate. One –the more important, I think–is the degree of financial and managerial autonomy that any state campus is allowed.  The other is the coherence and consistency with which state campuses are managed and financially supported as a group.  My views are colored by my ten-year experience as the chief academic officer of the State University of New York System, the largest in the nation, and one that manages, under one administrative roof,  64 diverse institutions, from community colleges to research universities.

I learned soon after I began as a SUNY system official how desirable it was to give the state’s public campuses enough administrative freedom to effectively meet their local responsibilities and balance their budgets.  After all, there was no way that a small staff in Albany could possibly micro-manage 64 widely dispersed campuses with different missions, thousands of faculty and staff and more than 450,000 students.  Thus, after 1997, every SUNY campus, not Albany, was given the last word on how its budgetary resources were spent, how its faculty and staff were deployed, and how it delivered education in the classroom.  But, giving campuses a greater measure of administrative freedom only worked because we also held campuses accountable to clear-cut, mutually agreed upon, operational academic and financial goals and metrics. 

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Unfettering New York’s Public Universities

Fiscally beleaguered presidents of public universities around the country like to wisecrack: “public universities used to be publicly funded, then they were publicly assisted, now they are publicly named.” While easy to dismiss as a self-serving whine, there is something to their complaint, at least as it applies to the two public university systems in New York, CUNY, the City University of New York, and SUNY, the State University of New York. Looking just at SUNY’s budget, for instance, out of a total annual system-wide expenditure of $11 billion, only $3.5 billion – or 32 percent – actually comes from New York State’s taxpayers. The other 68 percent comes from students, research foundations, users of SUNY facilities, and generous donors. The CUNY proportions are roughly comparable. In other words, to quote a top SUNY financial official, New York State today “is only a minority shareholder” in its public universities.
The problem is that New York’s legislators treat all of this non-taxpayer money as if it were actually theirs to collect and to disburse. They not only insist on setting the level of university tuition and then “appropriating” it so that it can be spent, they even want to control the disposition of externally provided research and philanthropy dollars. To add insult to injury, as external funding has gone up, legislators have reduced the state’s tax levy allocation – often by an even greater amount. Understandably, this infuriates the public universities’ primary financial backers – students, research grantors and philanthropists – who see their contributions being used not to enhance the state’s colleges but to indirectly underwrite other state expenditures.
This travesty might finally end (or at least be curtailed) under a proposal now being debated in Albany that is so controversial that its resolution is holding up approval of the 2011 state budget. Called The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA, pronounced “fee-ah”) – supported by Governor David Paterson and the state senate but strenuously resisted by the assembly – this legislation would allow both CUNY and SUNY to set their tuition levels without the legislature’s prior approval and keep all the resulting tuition revenue, accept and retain all funds from research grants and philanthropic gifts, more easily enter into contracts with private vendors and enterprise partners, streamline hospital operations (mainly an issue concerning SUNY’s three hospitals), fast-track campus facility construction, and lease portions of their campuses to other parties for purposes consistent with their academic mission. Naturally, all of these new operational freedoms are hemmed in by myriad restrictions: tuition increases would kept under the higher education price index, all expenditures and contracts would still be subject to state financial accounting rules, land leases and contracts would be tightly overseen by newly established state boards, just to mention a few of the bill’s many constraints.

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How the Universities Got This Way

Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University is a short, provocative book that raises many more questions than it answers. Its greatest contribution is that it clearly delineates the development of the American university from its origins in the late 19th century to the many absurdities that characterize it today.
Menand’s exposition of the various key events and trends that have shaped the contemporary American university runs like a stream throughout the book’s occasionally disjointed sections and chapters (the book is largely a compilation of lectures he gave at the University of Virginia). What we learn is that, for the most part, all of the key features of the American university as we know it today emerged full-blown in a burst of academic gestation over a single generation – approximately 1870 to 1900 – largely through the efforts of one man, Charles Eliot, Harvard University’s president from 1869 to 1909. Although Menand reviews the important ways in which the American university has changed since then, describing some of the key twists and turns along the way, he stresses that much has remained the same – often for no particularly good reason.
Menand divides the American university’s historical evolution into three distinct phases: a formative period running from its launch in 1870 under the influence of Harvard’s Eliot through its institutional maturation in the 20th century up to the onset World War II; a “golden age” of rapid expansion in enrollment, funding and prestige that lasted from 1945 to 1970, a product of post-war population and economic growth and the cold war, heavily influenced by another Harvard president, James Bryant Conant; and a post-golden age phase taking us from 1970 to the present, that Frederick Hess (but not Menand) has aptly dubbed the “politically correct” university.

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A New Kind of Community College

The Obama administration – along with many in the opinion elite – is looking to the nation’s two-year community colleges as the primary vehicle to ramp up future Americans’ level of post-secondary educational attainment. A down payment in this direction are the billions of dollars of direct and indirect community college aid included in the administration’s “stimulus bill.” However, before we get carried away with enthusiasm for community colleges as the best place to extend the frontier of higher education, there’s a question to consider: how well have these institutions actually succeeded in their mission to provide an inexpensive but effective college education to our millions of academically under-prepared high school graduates?
A cursory look at the data is not encouraging. Although 41 percent of America’s college-bound students enter community colleges each year , only 28 percent of this cohort actually complete their studies and earn a degree , an even more dismal outcome than that displayed at the nation’s baccalaureate colleges, where 56 percent manage to graduate . These depressing statistics haven’t dampened the general consensus favoring support of community colleges because proponents appear to believe that college “access” trumps successful college completion and that “some college is better than none.” Refuting the latter point, U.S. community college non-graduates have only marginally higher earnings and lower unemployment rates than high school graduates and do far less well than their counterparts that manage to complete their studies .
The disappointing outcomes at community colleges are to some extent hard-wired into four aspects of their design. These institutions are proudly and aggressively “open admissions” which means that there are no academic criteria to get in except, in most places, a high school diploma. They are indifferent to the extent to which their students are diverted from their studies by work or other outside obligations, convinced that such distractions are an unavoidable and immutable aspect of “nontraditional” student profiles. Their abundant array of courses (including ones for English and math remediation that a majority of their students test into and often fail) are taught primarily by low-paid part-time faculty who have little time for interaction with students beyond classroom hours. Finally, community colleges view their mission in strictly vocational terms. They offer majors geared to every occupation that their “environmental scanning” process identifies as having job openings, while slighting the kind of general education offered by baccalaureate institutions that may contribute more to post-collegiate success than narrow (and quickly obsolete) occupational skill sets. While educators and the media tend to be scornful of the academic pretensions of proprietary, often on-line, “universities” like Phoenix and DeVry, the public community colleges are not operationally very different or in their academic results any more successful.

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Does The SAT Predict College Success?

One of the hottest debates roiling American campuses today is whether the SAT and other standardized tests should continue to play a dominant role as a college admissions criterion. The main point of contention in this debate is whether the SAT or equivalent scores accurately gauge college preparedness, and whether they are valid predictors of college success, most particularly in comparison with high school grades. Behind this ostensible concern is the expressed fear that over-reliance on collegiate admissions tests will reduce “access” to college on the part of low-scoring applicants, many of them from poor or minority families and, thus, risk making American colleges and universities less demographically diverse.
First, let me address “access” and diversity: According to the most recent (2007) data, 45 percent of all colleges or universities, and 66 percent of public ones, have no admissions criteria at all. In the public sector – which accounts for three-quarters of all higher education slots – among the 34 percent of schools with some kind of admissions screen, 69 percent accept more than half of their applicants. Even among the remaining somewhat selective institutions, the majority either do not require admissions test scores or they accept most low-scoring applicants, with the result that the average verbal SAT for all college applicants is 532, and that for the math SAT is 537 (both out of a potential score of 800).
Second, regarding the sincerity of the most vociferous admissions test opponents: Virtually all of the schools calling for abandonment or down-grading of SATs and comparable admissions test have always been highly selective – and intend to remain so. There should be absolutely no confusion on this score. These places have no intention of becoming academically more diverse, meaning they are not planning to admit academically inferior poor or minority students. As predominantly rich institutions, they have an army of admissions officers able to pore over every applicant’s high school transcript and other evidence of academic ability to keep recruiting the best and brightest students, even absent admissions tests. Actually, even with their “test-optional” policies, they will have access to most applicants’ SAT scores anyway, because academically strong applicants will continue to take the tests to keep all their collegiate options open. If one were inclined to take a conspiratorial view of these institutions’ motives, one might suspect that they were mounting this concerted campaign to assure that America’s public colleges and universities remain unselective, derailing the rising admissions aspirations of those ambitious public institutions that threaten to cut into their current monopoly of gifted high school graduates.

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Abandoning The SAT – Fraud or Folly?

What are we to make of the decision by a growing number of “highly selective” colleges to scrap the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as a criterion for college admission, something brought to our attention recently when another pair of semi-elite schools (Smith and Wake Forest) joined these ranks? The New York Times story of May 27 reporting on the Smith/Wake Forest developments explains the matter thus: “The number of colleges and universities where such tests are now optional… …has been growing steadily as more institutions have become concerned about the validity of standardized tests in predicting academic success, and the degree to which test performance correlates with household income, parental education and race.” If this is really what is driving the SAT defectors, they are deceiving themselves and misleading the public.

Let’s begin with predictive validity. Among the countless studies done on this subject over the years, not a single one has failed to find a high correlation between SAT scores and academic performance in college, as measured by grades or persistence. On a personal note, during my ten years as Provost of SUNY, I had my institutional research staff repeatedly review the relationship between SAT scores and academic success among our 33 baccalaureate campuses and their 200,000 + students, and found – as all the national research has confirmed – a near perfect correlation. SUNY schools and students with higher SAT profiles had higher grade point averages and markedly higher graduation rates.

The other claim of test critics is that high school grade point averages are equal to or better than SATs as predictors of college performance. This, too, is inaccurate. Looking at all U.S. high school graduates in any given year, we find the distribution of grade point averages (GPAs) is remarkably uniform – and invariably bell-shaped – across the nation despite enormous local and regional differences in high school quality or curricula. There is statistically no way that such similar high school GPA profiles could accurately reflect the highly variable academic abilities of the American high school graduating cohort. If there is any truth at all to the claims of SAT defectors in this regard, it is that among their own students – most of whom have graduated from academically superior public or private schools – SATs and high school GPAs are highly correlated. Analysts have pointed out, however, that if high school GPAs were to more generally replace SATs as the primary admissions criterion to get into top colleges, grade inflation would very likely erode the predictive validity of GPAs even at privileged public or private high schools.

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