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Answer to fast-rising tuition rates must include action by the SUNY system, itself

In theory, the “rational tuition policy” adopted by the State University of New York five years ago is what it says: rational. In practice, though, it threatens to defeat the purpose of a public university. It’s time to rethink not just this approach to tuition-setting, but the structure of the SUNY system.

The problem is significant and was encapsulated in a recent News story: SUNY students have seen their tuition increase by 25 percent over the past five years, far higher than the rate of inflation, putting costs on a path that will not only hurt students and the cause of affordable higher education, but the SUNY system, itself.

There was a reason SUNY adopted the rational tuition policy. It provided for regular, somewhat predictable increases that would better allow students and parents to plan their academic path than the previous approach that forswore regular increases, only to be succeeded by an increase so large it would choke a horse. That wasn’t good, either.

But there’s an overriding issue that encompasses the mission of a public university: to offer high-quality degree programs that are affordable for families unable to manage the costs of a Cornell or Harvard or other private college. Over time – and not that much more time, at this rate – the costs of a SUNY education will exceed the grasp of many families, especially at a time of painfully slow wage growth. It’s a real problem that demands official attention.

The refreshingly blunt idea of the chairman of SUNY’s board of trustees is for state legislators to send more money to SUNY as part of this year’s budget. “We don’t want a tuition increase. … We’re proposing to the Legislature that they give us $73 million. With $73 million, there’ll be no tuition increase,” said H. Carl McCall who, as former state comptroller, knows more than most people about state finances and state government.

It’s an idea worthy of legislative attention, but only as a stopgap measure. Over the long haul, SUNY itself has to play a role in restraining the costs of tuition. Just as New York’s school districts need to re-engineer their operations to give taxpayers value for the nation’s highest per-pupil costs of public education, SUNY needs to re-engineer to remain competitive with other states whose public universities are working to attract New York students by offering them a bargain they can’t receive at home. That’s a threat that SUNY and state government leaders ignore at the system’s peril.

Part of the problem lies in SUNY’s own success. It boasts that it is the “nation’s largest comprehensive public university system” and that “93 percent of New Yorkers live within 15 miles of a SUNY campus, and nearly 100 percent live within 30 miles.” That makes public education physically easy to access in New York, but that size also drives up costs.

State leaders have to examine the overall value of so sprawling a system to New Yorkers. With tuition rates threatening to rocket out of reach, SUNY cannot responsibly avoid the task of examining, and likely recalibrating, the balance between the cost of public education and the accessibility of its 64 campuses.

That won’t be easy. With a SUNY location in virtually every community across the state, and not infrequently the largest employer, cutting back will be difficult and not always wise. Western New Yorkers who have fought to keep the Niagara Falls air base from falling victim to closure will easily understand the pressure to keep all campuses open and operating at full tilt.

Yet, Erie County residents also understand the concept of too much of a good thing. The outsized Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system had to retrench to help remain affordable. It wasn’t easy and the effort may not have gone far enough yet, but the work was at least begun.

SUNY needs to take on similar work, including leaving positions open as enrollment declines. It’s not enough just to ask for more taxpayer money. It might be necessary for a short period, but taxpayers are also pinched in New York. The problem of tuition that threatens to become too high for everyone’s good requires a comprehensive approach, and the time to begin that task is now.