Who should bear the cost of upgrading SUNY and CUNY? Hochul says students are part of the answer

New York’s public colleges need financial assistance, but fears of enrollment declines and burdening middle-class students have made the governor’s plan proposal unpopular with students, staff and some lawmakers.

Not everyone is a fan of tuition hikes for CUNY and SUNY

Not everyone is a fan of tuition hikes for CUNY and SUNY Darren McGee- Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

In recent years, New York’s public colleges, which educate some 600,000 New Yorkers, have suffered a slew of financial problems and declining enrollment, caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed tuition hikes for SUNY and CUNY campuses as a way to mitigate the financial challenges, but some lawmakers and advocates say the plan would place an undue burden on students, and the state should be investing more.

The governor’s 2024 executive budget proposal included a plan to annually increase tuition at SUNY and CUNY campuses indexed to the lesser of the higher education price index or 3% for CUNY senior colleges and SUNY state-operated campuses. 

At SUNY’s university centers: The University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University, Binghamton University and University at Albany, the proposed increase is much steeper. The governor proposed a 6% tuition increase for in-state students at those campuses each year for the next five years, up to 30%. 

According to the governor’s proposal, the tuition increases are expected to generate a total of $97 million for SUNY and $31 million for CUNY for the 2024 school year. The executive budget also includes funding for the systems that does not come from tuition increases. That includes $270 million in new, recurring state funding for SUNY and CUNY as well as a one-time $475 million investment for SUNY to upgrade tech and renovate labs among other projects. The budget proposal also includes $1.5 billion for new capital projects for SUNY and CUNY from the state as well as a plan to establish a state-matching endowment fund.

Advocates have denounced the governor’s proposal for tuition hikes, arguing the increases could not have come at a worse financial time as students are still feeling the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic and point to fears of an impending economic recession. “There are concerns about using the students as an ATM machine when public investment for public universities is what's really needed,” said James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, a union that represents 30,000 staff.

While the president of the SUNY Assembly, Binghamton student Alexandria Chun, said the organization understands the “financial crisis” SUNY is facing, students are largely against the tuition hikes. “They do impact such a wide variety of students – some who might not be equipped, especially in this current financial economy, to handle this,” Chun said.

Who should bear the burden?

At the joint legislative public hearing on higher education in late February, SUNY Chancellor John King and CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez supported the proposed tuition hikes. CUNY has refrained from implementing a tuition increase since 2019. “We believe that that tool – used wisely – is a good way to invest. We have a track record at CUNY of saying, even though we have the authority, we only use it when we think that the time is right,” Rodríguez said.

According to Rodríguez, an estimated 70-80% of the CUNY student population will not be impacted by the proposed tuition increase due to the Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell grants. The SUNY chancellor estimated 53% of the SUNY student population would also be covered under TAP, Pell grants and Excelsior scholarships. The governor’s office emphasized that as well.

The resources for low-income students do not assuage the concerns of advocates for affordable public education, including Nathan Gusdorf, executive director of the left-leaning economic think tank the Fiscal Policy Institute. “While it’s true that a lot of low-income students do get certain support, it's essential when we look at the way that higher education functions in the state economy that we focus on making it affordable for everybody who goes to those universities,” Gusdorf said. 

Gusdorf added: “It's not about having a charitable program just for the low-income students. It's about making really high-quality, universally accessible public institutions.”

With budget negotiations on the horizon, the proposed tuition increases to SUNY and CUNY may be a point of contention between the Legislature and the governor. In an interview with City & State, Higher Education Committee Chair Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky referred to the governor’s plan as an “attack on the middle class.” 

The chair said she is committed to keeping tuition affordable ahead of budget negotiations and is considering a proposal to increase TAP eligibility to $110,000 from 80,000 to help more students. “Middle-class and low-income students deserve quality and affordable higher education. We should provide it,” Stavisky said.

Stavisky is not alone in wanting to increase TAP eligibility. The SUNY Assembly has also put forth a plan to increase financial assistance by increasing eligibility for the TAP and Excelsior Scholarship Program. The organization has been in communication with lawmakers to garner support, including Assembly Members Harvey Epstein, Steven Raga and Alex Bores as well as the governor's policy and education team.

State lawmakers expressed concern the tuition hikes would further contribute to the enrollment declines plaguing both institutions, but King also asserted that the tuition hikes would help the university attract more students in the long term because the money would be used to invest in student services. “We think the quality of services that campuses can offer is really important to being competitive and attracting students … whether or not we have adequate mental health services and other student support matters for attracting students,” King said.

The need for more money for higher ed

While the lack of support for tuition increases is clear, experts and lawmakers have acknowledged the need to increase investment in public universities for operating support. The Senate and Assembly are set to unveil their response to the governor's executive budget proposal with their one-house budget proposals in the next few weeks. The governor has until April 1st to finalize the budget with the Legislature.

Assembly Higher Education Chair Patricia Fahy underscored the importance of investing in public higher education in an interview with City & State to give excellent education options for students who can’t afford schools like Columbia, Cornell or NYU.

“We've often just essentially left a lot of the crumbs for higher education. What I don't want to see happen here is that we become the haves and have-nots,” Fahy said.

Experts who spoke with City & State suggested other ways to increase the investment in higher education besides tuition hikes. Gusdorf argued the state could increase taxes on businesses instead of relying heavily on the funds to come from students. “It's important that the cost of that investment largely be borne by the well-armed and very profitable businesses,” Gusdorf said.

Davis of the Professional Staff Congress agreed with this sentiment while arguing the state should consider investing in universities by redirecting resources being offered as subsidies elsewhere. “The return on investment in public universities is proven and massive, whereas the return on investment in various economic development projects is much less certain,” Davis said.