September 15, 2011 | CUNY Matters Columns
As any CUNY graduate knows, the setting of tuition at CUNY and SUNY by the state has traditionally been done in a haphazard way. During economic downturns, students might experience very steep tuition increases, while in other years, tuition levels would hold steady.
For the better part of a decade I have advocated for a predictable tuition policy, one that allows students and their families, and the University, to plan for the future. The centerpiece of the CUNY Compact model is the establishment of a rational tuition plan, one that builds in modest, predictable increases tied to state funding and protects the neediest students.
In June, such a policy came to fruition. The New York State Legislature passed a five-year tuition plan for CUNY and SUNY, after an agreement reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Chairwoman Deborah Glick and Chairman Kenneth P. LaValle, who lead the higher education committees of the legislature, worked diligently to achieve a new statewide plan.
The legislation allows CUNY to raise tuition up to $300 a year in each of the next five years for undergraduates from New York State. Effective this fall, full-time, in-state, undergraduate student tuition at the senior colleges is $5,130 a year. Full-time, in-state tuition at the community colleges is $3,600 a year. The plan also contains a state “maintenance of effort” commitment that the state’s financial support cannot be reduced from prior-year levels (except in cases of financial emergency).
Consistent with the CUNY Compact, the legislation also provides an offset for students who receive full aid under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which is now capped at $5,000 a year. Students who receive less than the full TAP allocation will receive partial offsets. The legislation directs CUNY and SUNY to conduct a study and report on the effectiveness of TAP, including recommendations to improve the program to enhance student affordability and success. I should also note that, as a result of the adopted state budget and the recent federal debt ceiling agreement, both TAP and the federal Pell Grant program are funded for this academic year. In the academic year ending in 2010, nearly 167,000 CUNY students received state and federal financial aid. Approximately $716 million in TAP and Pell awards alone went to CUNY students in need.
In addition to helping families plan for the costs of higher education and protecting students in need, the state’s rational tuition plan has several other advantages. It allows the University to keep all of the revenue from the new tuition, rather than returning all or a portion of it to the state, as in past years. This important provision ensures that students’ investment in their education stays at the University, supporting academic priorities and student services. Moreover, it enables multi-year planning by the University, which increases our overall efficiency. The plan also encourages philanthropy. It demonstrates to donors that the state is investing in the University’s financial stability and that philanthropic gifts are not substituting for a lack of state support.
In addition, the five-year plan helps the University meet the growing needs caused by record student enrollment. This fall, the University’s enrollment of degree-seeking students tops 269,000. Over the last three years, senior college full-time equivalent enrollment increased by 10.7 percent. In the same period, the University’s operating budget sustained reductions of $205 million. This year, an additional $95 million was cut, for a total of $300 million. State base aid at the community colleges has been reduced by more than 20 percent over the last four years, and the 2012 city adopted budget included further reductions.
Cuts of this magnitude are unsustainable. Without increased and predictable income, the University simply could not meet students’ needs, whether sufficient course sections, laboratory equipment, or financial aid staff. We must facilitate our students’ progress and their ability to earn a degree. The longer it takes for students to graduate, the greater the financial burden they and their families face.
The state has taken a historic step in approving a rational tuition policy for CUNY and SUNY. Its actions send a strong signal that developing a highly skilled workforce through a vibrant, competitive public higher education system is a priority in New York. That bodes well for all New Yorkers.