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Editorial: Facing a funding threat, private colleges must adapt

Re-engineer: It has to be the surest way private colleges and universities in New York State will survive and perhaps thrive under what one leader called a “direct assault” on higher education.

The accusation stems from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate $30 million in Bundy Aid, unrestricted state money used by such institutions to provide additional financial aid for students.

Known as aid to independent colleges and universities, it doesn’t amount to a huge sum for any one individual college or university but it has made a difference.

This latest proposal to eliminate Bundy Aid is especially galling to school leaders following the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship offering free tuition to students attending public colleges and universities. The governor’s proposed budget sends a clear message that private institutions will have to devise a plan for survival. Some of that work is already happening.

D’Youville College late last year announced a creative plan to increase enrollment while providing Buffalo’s underserved West Side with critically needed health care. Canisius College announced a plan to dramatically reduce the price of tuition. These are two examples. More needs to be done. Either way, private institutions would be wise not count on Bundy Aid.

New York State is in a bind. Facing a possible deficit of $4.4 billion, state elected leaders must find places to cut. No one should expect to be left unscarred, including private colleges and universities which have enjoyed a measure of support from the state.

Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College, which receives about $250,000, called the proposal, “ill-advised,” and “shortsighted,” adding that “it’s going to directly hurt college students in this state.”

John J. Hurley, president of Canisius College, questioned “the state’s commitment to independent higher education in New York. Canisius received $271,000 in this academic year from the Bundy funds.

They would rather the state add money.

The argument, as outlined by the Rev. James J. Maher, president of Niagara University ($270,000), is that the aid rewards institutions effective in motivating students to graduate and earn degrees. He said that’s good use of taxpayer money. It’s tied to outcomes. It’s persuasive, but it misses an essential point: Private institutions need to rely less on public taxpayer funding.

Cuomo has offered using the $30 million in savings from the Bundy Aid program to fund a new round of Higher Education Capital Matching Grants program. HECAP allows private colleges and universities apply for awards that can be used “to improve programs or buildings on their campuses,” as reported by The News’ Jay Tokasz. It’s a roundabout solution since HECAP was not funded in the current budget.

The governor has also proposed nearly $23 million for the Enhanced Tuition Award which allows more students at private colleges to receive financial assistance. It requires institutions to match the amount the state pays for each student, up to $3,000. It also requires them to freeze tuition for enhanced tuition recipients for the entire time of their eligibility for the program.

Leaders of private colleges and universities face huge challenges made even more demanding with the prospect of decreased state taxpayer-funded aid. Like their peers in many other industries, they need to rethink how they accomplish their missions in a changing landscape.

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