ALBANY — Hundreds of thousands of SUNY and CUNY students are facing what appears to be an increasing likelihood of tuition hikes following testimony Monday at a state budget hearing from leaders of the city and state college and university systems.
Despite pushback from several lawmakers, the chancellors of the State University of New York and City University of New York defended proposed tuition hikes on their campuses proposed as part of Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul’s budget. Tuitions in both systems have been frozen since at least the beginning of the pandemic.
Hochul announced last month that she would authorize annual increases at most colleges by the lesser of 3% or an inflation index for higher education, and 6% at the state’s top universities in Buffalo, Stony Brook, Binghamton and Albany.
The SUNY and CUNY chancellors testified that the increases would improve programs and services, and make the research universities more competitive with public institutions nationwide.
“We stand out in how affordable SUNY is by comparison to other public higher ed systems,” said SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr., who started in the position last month. “That said, campuses need a reliable, predictable set of expectations around revenue.”
The average in-state tuition and fees at New York’s four-year colleges and universities is currently $8,556, the lowest of all but seven states, according to the governor’s office, and would rise by a few hundred dollars.
CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodriguez described the proposal at a hearing in Albany as “one more tool in the arsenal to bring revenue to our campuses.”
“We’re very proud that even in years when we’ve had the authority in the past, we have not always exercised that,” he added. “It’s been eight years of no tuition increases in the community colleges. So we believe that we have shown that we are good stewards when we’re given that authority by the state to do that.”
SUNY has held tuition steady since the COVID-19 pandemic began during the 2019-20 school year. The increases would resume this fall.
Several steps would need to happen first. Hochul’s proposed budget still needs to win legislative approval, and each system’s board would then need to approve any increases in tuition.
Both chancellors testified that the neediest students will not be impacted by the potential tuition hikes. More than half of SUNY students and 80% of CUNY students at the community colleges are off the hook, thanks to financial aid.
Still, close to a dozen state lawmakers questioned the proposals and how they may trickle down to students who struggle to pay for college, including middle class students who do not qualify for additional support.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, chair of the Committee on Budget And Revenue, argued that “a tuition increase is a tax increase by another name.”
“A lot of people are concerned about asking students in this state to pay more for what should be in an ideal world, a free, quality, public higher education,” he said.
Other state lawmakers suggested it was a particularly bad time to raise tuition, citing high inflation and the impact of the pandemic.
“I’m opposed to any tuition increase on the people attending college, knowing that for example, many will not be able to afford the tuition increase because the pandemic situation is still negatively impacting all of us,” said State Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Manhattan.
Underlying the debate were the harsh fiscal realities of dramatic enrollment declines in the public systems, particularly among community colleges. Responding to enrollment nosediving by more than 10%, CUNY ordered colleges earlier this month to slash budgets by an average of at least 5% and implement a hiring freeze.
The chancellors of CUNY and SUNY testified that raising tuition, and as a result improving its programs and services, will help attract and retain students. But some lawmakers said that the increased price tag may be one more barrier that prevents prospective students from enrolling.
“I personally believe that it is the best way to keep those seats filled and to remain competitive is to keep our tuition as low as possible, and the best and the brightest will just naturally come,” said Assembly member Monica Wallace, D-Lancaster, a former faculty member at the University at Buffalo Law School.
“I do recognize also that it’s on us, as the legislature, to make sure there’s enough funding in the budget so that you don’t have to raise tuition,” she added.
Hochul said in her briefing book that the proposals would “ensure that institutions in the CUNY and SUNY systems can reliably invest in their long-term futures as costs rise, while prioritizing the evolving needs of students, ensuring academic excellence, and continuing to maintain low-cost and stable tuition rates for New York residents.”
The tuition plan is expected to provide $97 million to SUNY and $31 million to CUNY, figures show.
But union officials and advocates who testified into the evening Monday argued those savings should not be shouldered by students.
“Funding a public university system on the private money of students is totally unsustainable,” said Frederick Kowal, president of the United University Professions, the SUNY union. “This is a public university system, and by its nature, you need to have public investment.”
The state budget is due by April 1.
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