SUNY faces fight over more tuition hikes

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Kelsey Ryan, a senior at SUNY New Paltz, has seen her tuition rise $1,200 during her four years in college. She’s worried about any more tuition hikes for future SUNY students as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and SUNY back another five years of increases up…

ALBANY — Kelsey Ryan, a senior at SUNY New Paltz, has seen her tuition rise $1,200 during her four years in college.

She’s worried about any more tuition hikes for future SUNY students as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and SUNY back another five years of increases up to $300 annually.

Database: SUNY enrollment

“Public higher education is designed to assure that students from lower and working-class families can afford an education,” she said in an email.

The 64-campus SUNY system is facing criticism and concerns from lawmakers and some students as it seeks the extension of its SUNY 2020 plan that is set to expire this year.

First implemented in 2011, the program has led tuition to increase $1,500, or 30 percent, since 2010 on the four-year campuses to $6,470 a year for incoming freshmen last fall.

The increases have come as enrollment has fallen 5 percent over the past five years, including 3 percent this year, but staff has increased by 1,270 workers, or up 3 percent — including up nearly 7 percent at its four-year campuses, records showed.

SUNY and its student allies say SUNY 2020 should continue because it provides “rational” tuition increases for parents and students, and they argue that additional state aid should be put to the colleges to limit further tuition increases.

And the costs to attend a SUNY school are still a good deal compared to many other institutions, SUNY 2020 supporters say. The average tuition, room and board was $31,231 at private colleges and $9,139 for state residents at public colleges in New York, according to the College Board.

Lawmakers and other students, however, are leery of adding to students’ college costs and giving SUNY permission for another five years to raise tuition. The situation will be resolved in advance of the state’s fiscal year, which starts April 1.

“I still think there is very little appetite for authorizing regular increases at the level the schools are seeking,” Assembly Higher Education Committee chairwoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan. “We’ve made in five short years $1,500 more expensive, and we haven’t done that much about financial aid.”

Carl McCall, the SUNY board chairman and former state comptroller, said an extension of SUNY 2020 wouldn’t automatically lead to another five years of $300 tuition increases. He said more state aid would alleviate higher tuition.

“If we have more state money, then that means we don’t have to increase tuition — or we don’t have to raise it to $300,” McCall said. “The sentiment on the board is that if we raise tuition, we would not go to $300.”

While Cuomo has supported an extension of SUNY 2020, his office has also knocked administrative costs and salaries at SUNY and the City University of New York. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher received $655,000 last year, the second-highest salary in state government, which included a series of perks and a 3 percent raise.

Defending tuition

A Zimpher spokeswoman said the chancellor was unavailable this past week for an interview with Gannett’s Albany Bureau.

In testimony last month in a state budget hearing, she defended the need for the ability to raise tuition by up to $300 a year. She said if state aid increased, tuition wouldn’t need to grow as much.

“If the state were to increase its investment, our commitment is ask our Board of Trustees not to increase the tuition — either to the max of $300 or relative to the state’s investment,” Zimpher testified.

Without the program, the state legislature could randomly decide to increase tuition, as it did in the past, including spikes of 45 percent in one year, Zimpher said. In 2003, for example, tuition rose $950.

SUNY contends that state aid has been reduced by about $153 million since 2010, and the campuses have had to take on $140 million in negotiated salary increases and $56 million for tuition assistance programs.

Samantha Meadows, 21, a senior at Binghamton University, said the money from the tuition increases have went to improve the college.

“The tuition policy is a small amount of money, and the SUNY 2020 benefited Binghamton vastly,” said Meadows, who is from Long Island. “The amount of research opportunities for both humanities, liberal arts and the sciences have increased — we have faculty increases.”

More state aid

SUNY was also miffed when Cuomo in December vetoed a bill that would have provided what’s called a “maintenance of effort” of state funding to SUNY — a pledged amount each year.

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professors, the union for professors, said the maintenance of effort bill “had almost unanimous votes in both houses and that expresses how strongly the legislators, public, faculty students feel about this legislation.”

He added, “In his veto message, the governor said it needed be dealt with in the budget. We’re garnering support in the legislature, and we’re hopeful the legislature will pass it once again as part of the budget and the governor will sign it.”

Cuomo’s office countered that state aid to SUNY and CUNY has increased by $1 billion since 2011: from $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion. He’s proposed another $400 million increase over the next five years.

“Over the past five years, the state has invested $30 billion in SUNY and CUNY to open the door of opportunity and help hundreds of thousands of students to be career ready,” said Morris Peters, Cuomo’s budget spokesman, in a statement.

SUNY students rallied Thursday at the Capitol to press for more state aid and no more tuition increases.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot of money to some people, but that’s a lot of money to most people; that’s $1,200 for four years,” said Michael Tierney, 21, a junior at SUNY New Paltz from Kent, Putnam County.

Thomas Mastro, a Binghamton University senior and president of the SUNY Student Assembly for the whole system, said the 64-campus student government last spring supported re-upping SUNY 2020, but only if students would have a larger voice in the process and if the increases, if at all, would be limited.

He said more state aid is needed: Students pay about 70 percent for its public schools, while the state pays about 30 percent.

“We obviously don’t support raising it to $300 moving forward,” he said. “We support the predictable about this plan.”

Other student government bodies do not feel the same, however.

“I represent students at Purchase as the chair of the Senate, and our students voted against rational tuition. We were the only college in the student assembly to vote against rational tuition,” said Megan Singer, 22, a senior at SUNY Purchase in Westchester County.

She said students are going to “fight continuously” against tuition increases.

Enrollment falls

SUNY campuses, meanwhile, continue to see a drop in enrollment as it has boosted staffing. The SUNY workforce increased from 42,835 to 44,105 over the past five years, state budget records show.

The biggest enrollment drops were largely at community colleges, whose student population has fluctuated with the economy: During the recession with fewer jobs, more people went back to school. With an improving economy, though, enrollment dropped.

Enrollment fell 18 percent over the past five years at Monroe Community College, nearly 8 percent at Dutchess Community College and just over 7 percent at Westchester Community College.

Community colleges, which set their own tuition rates, are also dealing with students out of high school who often need the most help.

“What we are really seeing is not a significant change in our demographics overall, except for, honestly, we are seeing more underprepared students,” MCC President Anne Kress testified at last month’s budget hearing.

McCall said the added staffing was needed to make up for years of fewer staff members, and SUNY 2020 provided the money — about $60 million a year in revenue from the $300 tuition increase to invest in staff and facilities.

“What we’re saying now is that we’d like to have the ability to increase tuition over the next five years, if necessary,” he said. “What we really want is more state investment. We can’t just look at the students and their families to provide additional revenue.”

Teresa Wheeler, 19, freshman at SUNY Purchase, from Hyde Park, Dutchess County, protested at the Capitol against tuition increases.

“Of course I’m affected by student debt, tuition cost is terrible and it should not keep increasing,” Wheeler said. “I think if we don’t do something to stop it’s going to set a precedent that $300 each year isn’t anything and after awhile it’s going to add up to more than we can handle.”

Zimpher’s deal

McCall also defended Zimpher’s compensation, saying she runs the largest public-college system in the nation. She didn’t get a raise during his first five years at the helm, which started in 2009, and her deal is less than some other public-college presidents, he said.

“You have to find ways to give people some additional benefits to show them that you value what they do and at the same time to show that you are being competitive,” McCall said.

She has been criticized for a 3 percent raise approved by the SUNY board of trustees last year, taking her base pay to $504,700.

In June, SUNY spent $430,000 for an Albany townhouse for her to live and increased her housing allowance nearly 7 percent: from $90,000 to $96,000, state records showed. Her husband also gets a six-figure SUNY job.

“It’s a little unseemly to have big, mid-six-figure salaries for people in public education when you’re raising tuition,” said Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, R-Fishkill, Dutchess County.

Zimpher can live at the townhouse for no more than 200 days a year, and it’s also be to used for SUNY events. She has to pay $2,945 a quarter to rent the place, her contract states, and has to pay for any housing in New York City when she’s there.

“The house is not just for her. The house will be available for any chancellor we have. The house is a very useful thing,” McCall said. “There are meetings; there are receptions. It’s very much used by the community.”

In a Feb. 1 letter to SUNY and CUNY, Cuomo’s top aide Jim Malatras called many of the salaries “exorbitant” and urged them to review their administrative costs.

SUNY and CUNY said the review is already underway, and Zimpher at the budget hearing said the schools are paying top salaries for major doctors and researchers. CUNY is also in a fight with Cuomo over state aid to the city to fund the city system.

All but one of the top 100 state salaries worked in the public-college system, state records show.

“We live in a very competitive market in higher education,” she said. “And interestingly enough, the public sector has to compete with the private sector.”

McCall called the criticism over SUNY’s top-paid workers a distraction.

“Unfortunately, people want to focus on that when the bigger picture is how to be we provide for the hundreds of thousands of kids in this state who need higher education,” he said.

Follow Joseph Spector on Twitter @gannettalbany.

SUNY 2020

What is it?

SUNY has had legislative approval to increase tuition at its four-year colleges by $300 a year for the past five years. So tuition is up $1,500, or 30 percent, since 2010 to $6,470 a year for incoming freshmen last fall.

What’s at stake?

SUNY wants a five-year extension of SUNY 2020, saying it would limit tuition increases in the future with additional state aid. The state’s fiscal year starts April 1.

SUNY enrollment

Check our database to see enrollment by SUNY school every year since 2005:

pressconnects.nydatabases.com/database/annual-suny-enrollment

State employee salaries

Check our database to see how much every state employee made in 2015:

pressconnects.nydatabases.com/database/state-employee-salaries

State employees earning greater than $100,000

Check our database to see only state employees who earned more than $100,000 in 2015:

pressconnects.nydatabases.com/database/state-employees-earning-greater-100000-0


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