February 07, 2011
By: by Jimmy Vielkind, Capitol Bureau, Times Union
ALBANY -- Most of the debate around Gov. Andrew Cuomo's higher education proposals has centered on his cuts in state aid: more than $1 billion.
But to offset some of the reductions, particularly for marquee university centers like the University at Albany, Cuomo has inserted two policies sought last year by SUNY administrators in their efforts to be more flexible and compete with big-name state university systems like California and Michigan.
Cuomo's budget would allow SUNY campuses to enter into public-private partnerships -- like what UAlbany does with its College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering -- without legislative approval and streamlining the process to procure goods. Both were part of the SUNY Empowerment Act that failed to pass last year. Some lawmakers see the actions as necessary steps to allow campus growth; others recall a day when SUNY derived more of its support from direct taxpayer subsidies and worry that raising tuition -- or taking control over rates and campus development from the Legislature -- will reduce students' ability to get a quality education.
Expect the debate to rekindle.
"I do wonder," said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the chamber's Higher Education Committee. "I didn't think the administration had a strong commitment to public higher education, and this is very much the neo-con view of the world."
"These universities can become true economic engines for the state and the surrounding communities," countered Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo. "You have these people who say, 'No, no, no. We can't change the way we're doing business at SUNY,' yet they're perpetuating a mediocre system."
On Friday, Hoyt was in Amherst, the Erie County suburb that is home to the main campus of the University at Buffalo, to listen to Cuomo give a presentation of his budget. The governor first unveiled his spending plan Tuesday in Albany, and said he was confident the SUNY system could absorb the proposed cut to operating aid without raising tuition this year.
Cuomo's view on tuition surprised many officials, including Jason Lane, an assistant professor of education administration at UAlbany and a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute. The institute will be the site of a panel Monday looking at the role of colleges in economic development as part of UAlbany Day at the Capitol.
Lane said there are basically three ways for public colleges and universities to get money: tuition, state budget appropriations and public-private partnerships.
"In some ways, it is privatizing," he said of Cuomo's plan. "But what New York has really done is, by decreasing the funding without allowing SUNY to do some of these things, it's actually decreasing the quality of the education because it hasn't allowed any way to make up the money."
This is why SUNY lags behind other state universities, at which tuition is higher. Indeed, when the magazine U.S. News and World Report released its 2011 rankings for public colleges, six of the top 11 schools were from the University of California system. The highest-ranking New York school was SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which tied for 34th.
But the cost of UCLA or UC Berkeley is more than $27,000, compared with $19,125 for students at the University at Binghamton, another of SUNY's four major centers. Glick pointed to a 2011 ranking by Kiplinger, which rated Binghamton and SUNY Geneseo as the sixth- and seventh-best values in public higher education, ahead of 13th-ranked UCLA.
The Legislature sets tuition, but money raised from students has been regularly taken from SUNY for other state programs. Under the Empowerment plan considered last year, more authority would be vested with individual campuses that, depending on their ambition, could raise or lower tuition. After a $620 increase in 2009, tuition and fees at four-year SUNY campuses is $6,230 for New York residents.
Is it a bargain, or are taxpayers getting a bargain-basement good?
Julie Gondar, president of the SUNY Student Assembly, said the group would support a modest tuition hike: "We understand that the governor is concerned about pricing students out by raising tuition but that won't even be an issue if their program can't be found in the SUNY system."
SUNY officials, including Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and UAlbany President George Philip, declined to comment. In her own budget statement, Zimpher lauded the changes proposed by Cuomo but remains "deeply concerned" about "mounting fiscal challenges."
In keeping such a hard line on tuition, Cuomo may be forcing reform beyond the public-private partnerships, which his budget proposal says "will help the campuses and hospitals design management strategies that maintain their core missions in the face of declining state support." Jeffrey Gordon, a Budget Division spokesman, said there is no estimate on how much the changes will generate, "but the value of these is that it allows SUNY to streamline their bureaucracy in certain ways as well as to take advantage of revenue generating opportunities."
Cuomo's proposed budget does not cut funding for the Tuition Assistance or Educational Opportunity programs, which provide assistance to low-income students.
Politically, the issue doesn't split along party lines. Many in New York City, like Glick, have concerns about access and came of age in a time when SUNY and CUNY educations were essentially free -- a public benefit afforded residents of the Empire State.
But many lawmakers representing the big university centers -- particularly representatives from Buffalo, where the university is planning a major expansion into a distressed downtown called UB 2020 -- actively seek the change.
In Amherst, Cuomo recommitted to UB 2020 and the changes needed to implement it, lauding it as an "exciting" regional strategy for economic revitalization.
Some remain unconvinced. Around 250 students, faculty and staff rallied outside the Capitol on Friday, shouting "think ahead, invest in higher ed!" before marching down State Street to SUNY headquarters. Leaders from New York State United Teachers and its subgroup for SUNY professors, United University Professions, called for restorations by continuing an income-tax surcharge on state residents earning more than $200,000 per year.
"Public-private partnerships have not proven they do anything for equality and access," said Jackie Hayes, 28, a graduate student in Latin American, Caribbean & U.S. Latino Studies at UAlbany. She noted the last round of budget cuts hit UAlbany's French, Italian, Russian, theater and classics departments.
None of the departments have the options for private partnerships that nanoscience or business do, she said: "We would see our department wither under these circumstances, and at a public institution we should have a lot of options."
Cuts to SUNY
SUNY receives a total of $3.3 billion in state support (such as core support, fringes, debt service, community college state support, hospitals and miscellaneous). The total cut is approximately 30 percent of our state support.
$618 million cut to state ops
$56 million cut to community colleges
$470 million cut to SUNY hospitals
Total cut (including of failure to cover mandatory costs) about $1.1 billion
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