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Amy Traub

Higher Education Back in the Spotlight

According to Governor Spitzer, the state's public colleges and universities are an investment in New York's future. That sounds like the hoariest of cliches, until you remember that for many years the state operated under a very different philosophy. Under Pataki, tuition at CUNY and SUNY went up, state support declined, and educational quality mostly stagnated. (See this 2005 report from NYPIRG for a great overview of the Pataki record on higher education.) During the Pataki years, economic development mostly seemed to be about giving special tax breaks to unaccountable corporations, not investing in educating the state's future workforce.

But now the focus is back where it belongs, with a bold preliminary plan (large pdf) from Spitzer's State Commission on Higher Education that advocates excellence in higher education through hiring 2,000 more full-time faculty at SUNY and CUNY, recruiting top scholars, and investing in research. The proposal also includes welcome efforts to prepare more high school students for college-level work. What's more, the commission correctly recognizes that achieving excellence requires more funding: noting that excellent public university systems around the country have 17-120% more resources than SUNY and CUINY, the report advocates substantially increased state investment in the systems.

So far so good. But it's lucky that this is a preliminary report (final recommendations from the commission are due in June) because some elements of the proposal need to be seriously re-thought. For example, the report talks a good game when it comes to recognizing New York's economic disparities and the role education can play, noting the gulf separating financially-secure, well-educated New Yorkers and those mired in poverty with low educational attainment. But concerns about college affordability are given short shrift.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gives New York an F for public college affordability, noting that it's colleges, especially community colleges, are less affordable than in most other states. According to that report, low-income families in New York must pay 48% of their income to foot the bill for New York's public 4-year colleges, even after TAP and Pell Grants are taken into account. Yet while the state commission wants to expand TAP and commit the state to funding a greater share of public higher education, they also suggest raising tuition, proposing regular hikes of 2-4% a year. Given the struggles many students already face to afford a college education, this increase seems ill-advised.

On Monday, DMI fellow Maureen Lane delves further into the preliminary report, training her eye on two innocuous sounding proposals -- a college readiness program and an expansion of student loans -- that may also need to be rethought.

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Posted at 7:23 AM, Dec 20, 2007 in Education | New York
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