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Colleges Open, Will Governor Cuomo Help?

Andrew Cuomo Governor Cuomo is facing a tough contendor. Will he finally work to fix CUNY facilities? PHOTO/ The Daily Chronic

By Patrick Kenani and Jonathan Gaffney

It’s that time again; colleges are opening across New York and for many students, the campus experience will have a profound impact on their lives.  The public will benefit too: more highly trained residents have a positive impact on the economic health of the state, the nation, and the world.  Studies in New York have shown that every dollar invested in higher education results in multiple dollars more in tax revenues generated by students and graduates.

College graduates also positively impact our democracy. For those reasons, society has viewed investing in higher education as a worthwhile public good.  Of course, a college degree is not the only path to economic or civic success, but it helps.

Despite the obvious benefits from public investments, New York has been shifting the costs of attending college from the state to students and their families. The result has been dramatic: over 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt. That means that roughly one in four American adults are paying off student loans.  When they graduate, the average student loan borrower has over $37,000 in student loan debts, a $20,000 increase from 13 years ago.

Much hand wringing has occurred over this trend, but not much action.  Here in New York, Governor Cuomo has successfully advanced a proposal to make it easier for some to pay off their debts.  The “Get on Your Feet Loan Forgiveness Program” provides some federal student loan debt relief. The governor also got legislative approval for his Excelsior Scholarship program which allows some middle income students to attend public college tuition-free.

While both of these programs’ goals are laudable, both are very limited in their impact.  Most students are ineligible, and that’s by design.

What City and State University of New York students have seen are tuition hikes nearly every year during the two terms of the Cuomo Administration.  Since 2011, state law has allowed for tuition hikes of  hundreds of dollars per year at CUNY and SUNY.  And thanks to that law, tuition has gone up, totaling a whopping 35% increase.

The law allowing these tuition hikes has been linked to another provision, one that requires the state to “maintain” its support for CUNY and SUNY. The governor promised that the state would not cut its support for higher education and additional tuition dollars would be used to enhance the institutions.

But, as is too often the case, the fine print spelled out a different scenario.  The state’s “maintenance of effort” did not include inflation and other cost increases.  As a result, state support for higher education has been stagnant while costs have increased; meaning that student dollars are being used to close state budget shortfalls.

Governor Cuomo will have an opportunity to stop those shortfalls.  Both houses of the Legislature unanimously approved legislation that requires the state to cover the inflationary costs at CUNY and SUNY.  It is expected that the legislation will land on the governor’s desk soon.

Now is the time for New York to reverse its policy of increasing costs to attend college; boosting state support is an important first step.

Patrick Kenani and Jonathan Gaffney are NYPIRG project coordinators at Brooklyn College. You can find them at Ingersoll Hall 1433 and contact them atpkenani@nypirg.org and jgaffney@nypirg.org.

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