Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Changing the Way Public Universities in New York Set Tuition

Did you know that the New York State Legislature controls tuition policy, setting rates and increases for the entire State University of New York system? This means that every four-year SUNY school charges the same tuition, whether it is a highly competitive and selective research institution or a small local college with more limited programs. However, that may all change if Governor Paterson has his way.

The Governor's budget proposal to the legislators last week included a measure that would allow SUNY colleges as well as the City University of New York, or CUNY, to finally determine their own tuition increases. Those advocating for maintaining the close oversight now held by Albany believe that centralization of decision making authority ensures consistent quality across the system. Critics, however, assert that lack of control over something as basic as tuition policy is detrimental to an institution’s ability to respond effectively to the changing needs of students and the community, and to efficiency deliver academic excellence.

My last blog posting discussed the Kiplinger report on the top 100 best values in colleges. Many of you will recall that two of the SUNYs, namely Binghamton and Geneseo, ranked in the top ten for both in-state and out-of-state residents. Would freedom to manage their own tuition rates move them out of the top tier for value? Proponents of Paterson’s plan would argue to the contrary. Competitive and highly sought programs in areas such as business, engineering and information technology are currently not priced according to their caliber or to the demand. Flexibility to increase tuition, while still remaining competitively priced, should only lead to an improvement in quality and value.

Currently the tuition at nearly all of SUNY’s 64 institutions is $5,070, a 14% increase over the prior year. Unfortunately, the SUNY colleges saw very little of that increase. The legislature has traditionally used such hikes as a tool to plug the State’s budget gap which was the case in 2009. Only 20% of the increase actually found its way to the SUNY system. Paterson’s proposed change would discontinue that practice, preventing the use of public college tuition as a state budget management tool. Rate hikes would also be capped as a function of the Higher Education Price Index, keeping tuition rise in check.

That said, it isn’t clear exactly how the proposed changes will impact New York State colleges, from a quality or cost standpoint. Some fear that the larger research institutions will price themselves in a way that makes them no longer accessible to middle income students, similar to what we have seen with many private institutions. The cap on tuition increases should moderate that somewhat. Furthermore, the trend toward diversification of financial resources (i.e., seeking funding beyond just the state) is likely to gain momentum, especially with the severity of the budget deficit issues facing Albany and in fact, all state governments. Greater freedom to manage tuition and raise private capital may be just what the SUNY colleges need to maintain and even possibly improve quality and value.

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