Well Endowed?

Well Endowed?

March 8, 2014

It’s hard not to notice one growing trend in higher education: Tuition is going up, at both private and public schools. 

The State University of New York and City University of New York systems have addressed the rising costs in recent years by implementing “rational” tuition, a plan that locks in tuition hikes over several years, allowing students to plan for the future. State funding for higher education has steadied in recent years, following the economic downturn in 2009, when the system faced major budget cuts. This year Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a .08 percent increase in funding, with another 2.2 percent increase slated for the 2015–16 budget. 

Even so, United University Professions, the state’s largest union of college and university employees, fears the cost burden will continue to move onto students. 

“What you see is a shift—a gradual shift, but very discernable—away from public dollars to tuition funding of public higher education,” said UUP Executive Director Fred Kowal. 

This trend has resulted in the increasing use of adjunct professors, Kowal explained. 

“At some of our campuses fully 40, 50, and in some cases 60 percent of the teaching is done by adjuncts. These adjuncts are highly qualified, very committed—there is no question about that—but the fact is that the university is really built on long-term full-time teaching faculty and support staff,” he said. 

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher agrees that the state needs more full-time faculty members. In her testimony at a budget hearing before the state Legislature, she called for additional state funding to hire 250 additional full-time faculty members with a focus on high-need and high-demand programs like Engineering, Healthcare and Information Technology. 

“We will work with you and our other stakeholders to develop the best vehicle to get these faculty hired,” Zimpher said. “Including the ‘endowment program’ for full-time faculty forwarded by UUP and others. I am excited by this concept, and I look forward to learning more about it in the days ahead.” 

“In essence this would create a foundation that would fund long-term investment in faculty and staff,” Kowal said. “This would put New York in line with states all around the country.” He pointed to the state of Minnesota, where the university system has an endowment just above $2 billion with fewer than half the students of the SUNY and CUNY system. 

The proposal of an endowment has some support in the state Legislature, Kowal said. 

Assembly Higher Education Chair Deborah Glick called the idea “interesting” but said she needed more details, specifically about how it would be funded, and for how long. “They’re more or less saying you should put $250 million a year into faculty, which isn’t a bad idea if we had it. But are we supposed to put money away, keep it in a fund, spin off interest and use that? So it was totally unclear and unspecific,” Glick said. 

She added, “That’s not happening in the short run, especially when we don’t really know what they’re thinking.” 

Kowal said his union would like to see the endowment funded over the next few years with a goal of reaching $1 billion. The interest, which UUP estimates would be $30–40 million, would then be used to fund faculty and staff. 

He suggested several potential funding sources, including drawing upon some of the roughly $2 billion surplus Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the state will have. Revenue from expanding casino gambling could also be used, Kowal suggested. 

Nationally, most endowment funds do yield significant money in interest for schools. The National Association of College and University Business Officers, which gathered data from 835 U.S. colleges and universities in 2013, found that the endowments returned an average of 11.7 percent, with participating institutions receiving 8.8 percent of their operating budget from the funds. 

Nonetheless, the endowment system has come under fire in the past, with some members of Congress accusing schools of hoarding money and not reinvesting enough in tuition relief or improving facilities. 

Additional reporting by Jon Lentz 

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Michael Gareth Johnson