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Editorial: Cuomo’s effort to upend funding model for higher education has serious flaws

In fairness to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, it’s not hard to see his point about how the state subsidizes private colleges.

Their nature is to produce costs far higher than public systems such as the State University of New York. Taxpayers in New York already, and appropriately, support SUNY. Why should they also support private institutions? They don’t support private high schools, after all.

Nevertheless, we suspect, given Cuomo’s history, that this is an opening feint – a proposal meant to get the attention of the private colleges, many of which are in financial difficulty. If so, that may be fine, but it’s the only way it is fine, at least in the near term. What Cuomo is proposing, however defensible in theory, qualifies as a shock to the system that is bound – if not designed – to cause chaos.

The governor says his proposal would “make colleges accountable for exorbitant tuition rates” by restricting the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, to colleges that maintain increases in tuition below $500 or the annual increase in the Higher Education Price Index, whichever is greater. Those that don’t would lose access to hundreds of millions of dollars. Cuomo also has proposed ending unrestricted financial support, known as Bundy Aid, to colleges that exceed the tuition increase threshold.

The consequence, college leaders say, would be to ruin the private college system that they say has worked well in New York for generations of students. Together with his proposal for free tuition to SUNY campuses, the private institutions say they detect hostility coming from the governor.
They wouldn’t be the first.

The Seneca Nation of Indians felt Cuomo’s hostility in negotiations over casino disputes, including its withholding of payments in Niagara Falls. Canadians on the Peace Bridge Authority felt the governor’s hostility over the pace of progress on the American plaza. Roswell Park Cancer Institute felt Cuomo’s hostility in his effort to push the hospital off of state support several years ago.

In each case, things worked out, more or less satisfactorily. We suspect it will with the private colleges, too, but not before some serious negotiations that take account of difficult realities.

For one thing, private colleges in Western New York are struggling. There are too few students to sustain the supply. Like many other institutions in New York – including the public school systems – the delivery of post-secondary education needs to be re-engineered, in both its public and private incarnations. What worked decades ago is insufficient for the 21st century.

It would be easier to endorse a state program to wean private colleges off of state support over a period of years rather than threatening simply to end it. The point then would be to encourage the colleges to rethink their systems, in part by seeking the partnerships or mergers that they now resist.

No taxpayer should have a problem with the state insisting that private colleges benefiting from public dollars look closely at their operations, looking for ways to lower their costs. It’s nothing more than many other industries and institutions have had to do as the economy has undergone significant change.

But no one would benefit from a sudden shock to the system such as Cuomo appears to be proposing. This can’t happen all at once and certainly not this year. What’s important is to get people talking about it. Cuomo, at least, has accomplished that.

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