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SUNY asks for tuition hikes that vary by campus

State University of New York officials – rebuffed last year in their efforts to extend $300 annual undergraduate tuition increases – are now pushing a proposal that would allow for smaller yearly tuition hikes, varying by campus.

The SUNY plan would renew a tuition policy that was in place from 2011 to 2015, as part of legislation known as NYSUNY 2020. The policy expired last spring and state lawmakers declined to renew it.

SUNY officials hope to bring it back, with a wrinkle – tiered tuition rate increases. SUNY’s proposed operating budget calls for the SUNY trustees to have the ability to set annual undergraduate tuition rate increases for individual campuses within four bands or baskets: $0, $100, $200 or $300. Campus presidents would recommend a band for their institutions based on needs and market conditions.

The proposal could be a tough sell in the state Legislature, where lawmakers historically have resisted differential tuition by campus, even though the practice is common in other state systems. Some legislators also have expressed concern that the cost of tuition for New York undergraduate students at a SUNY campus grew by 30 percent in five years. Tuition currently is $6,470, up from $4,970 in 2011.

SUNY representatives point out that the strategy will prevent sudden, large tuition spikes as a result of state budget negotiations, while also providing campuses and families with more predictability. They also argue that many of the 29 state-sponsored campuses need the additional tuition revenue to help students graduate on time, which ultimately reduces student costs and limits debt.

“For most students, having an adequate number of courses and sections to complete their requirements on time and graduate in four years greatly outweighs a tuition increase,” said SUNY trustee Cary Staller, who is chairman of the SUNY board’s finance and administration committee. “Obviously it costs much more money to stay in school for five or six years than to graduate in four years, nevermind the forgone income which one gives up by not graduating.”


Seeking predictability

SUNY wants the tiered tuition rate increases through 2020-21. If the state provided more aid to SUNY in a given year, the less likely tuition increases would be warranted for that year, Staller said.

The SUNY budget seeks $800 million for capital projects across the state. It also asks the state’s budget crafters to adopt a “hold harmless” funding model that would have the state pay for any increases in costs that are outside of campus control, such as collective bargaining agreements. Those additional costs could be more than $60 million. SUNY had been pushing in past years for a “maintenance of effort” provision that would cover the collective bargaining costs and also allow campuses to be reimbursed for inflationary operational costs, such as utilities and rent.

Some campus presidents have said that they had to use at least some of the increased tuition revenue from 2011 to 2015 towards paying for higher operational costs, including contracts with employees that were negotiated by the state.

In a statement to The News, University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi said the latest SUNY proposal “underscores the entire SUNY system’s commitment to ensuring predictability and affordability for current and prospective students.”

“Investment in SUNY, combined with a predictable tuition program, removes the uncertainty of sporadic and large tuition increases of the past and allows parents and students to plan for the cost of their education,” Tripathi said. “This budget proposal will provide UB with the resources to ensure excellence while at the same time remaining among the most affordable national public research universities in the country.”


Finishing on time

Tripathi did not indicate what band of tuition increase he would recommend for UB.

Not all of the 29 campuses would choose the maximum tuition increase, said Eileen McLoughlin, SUNY chief financial officer. Some campuses under pressure to make enrollment targets might put themselves at a competitive disadvantage by raising tuition further. “There’s campuses that are very cognizant of their market position,” said McLoughlin.

Average tuition and fees at a SUNY campus this year are $8,337, below the national average of $9,648.

But SUNY Student Assembly President Marc J. Cohen, a University at Albany graduate student from Williamsville, said that students already bear the brunt of higher education costs in New York and should not be asked to pay more tuition.

The Student Assembly put forth its own “Rational Reinvestment Plan” that proposes increased state aid to cover tuition freezes and an expansion of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program.
State Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, D-Manhattan, who is chairwoman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, hosted a public hearing on college costs in November.

Glick said the state hadn’t invested in higher education as much as it needed to and could do more to help SUNY “hold the line on raising tuition and fees that they find necessary in order to keep pace with the kinds of upgrades they need to make.”

In her testimony at the hearing, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher cited UB’s “Finish in Four” as one of several “evidence-based” approaches being used in SUNY to overcome obstacles to on-time graduation. In 2012, UB committed $7.5 million toward hiring 150 instructors and adding more than 300 new course sections to make certain it could guarantee that its full-time undergraduates would be able to take all of the courses they need to complete a bachelor’s degree within four years.

But across the state there are still too many students graduating late or not at all, Zimpher said. The state needs to focus as much on completion as it has on making college affordable and accessible to all students, she said.

“We know that helping students finish on time or early is one of the surest ways to diminish student debt,” she said. “In this case, time is money.”

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