ALBANY -- A bill before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo represents the opening punch in a fight that will determine how much tuition will increase for 700,000 public college students and their families in coming years.
The bill demands that the Cuomo administration keep increases in state aid in closer pace with annual tuition hikes, which have jumped 30 percent in the past five years at the State University of New York and City University of New York. While state aid increased far more in those years compared with the preceding era of flat and reduced funding, it still grew at less than half the rate of tuition.
The bill overwhelmingly passed by the State Legislature would require the state to cover inflationary and mandated costs at the State University of New York and City University of New York, such as utility bills, building rentals and salaries and benefits. It also would require the state budget to cover mandated costs for programs and equipment at SUNY's three teaching hospitals in Stony Brook, Brooklyn and Syracuse.
Legislators seek to require a greater state commitment than is in the 2011 law that created the "rational tuition" plan of annual increases. The plan was created to better fund the systems, after state aid cuts, to hire and retain professors to raise academic performance, and to avoid unpredictable spikes in tuition forced by crises.
The public universities were hit with deeper cuts than many state programs in the state fiscal crisis of 2008-2011.
In that 2011 law, the Cuomo administration agreed to a "maintenance of effort" in state aid. That law only required that the state not cut SUNY and CUNY aid from 2011 to 2016.
"The maintenance of effort was maintenance-of-effort-light," said Assembly Higher Education Committee chairwoman Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), the bill's co-sponsor.
That tuition plan, however, sunsets next year. Cuomo, SUNY and CUNY are expected to ask the legislature to extend it in what will be one of the major initiatives of the 2016 legislative session.
"We are looking at what is actually needed to maintain a level of support," Glick said, a level "that ensures that the promise to students that, if they pay more -- and it's a big jump -- that the state will ensure the promise of more full-time faculty and additional sections of course work to make it easier to complete your degree in four years."
Now, as Cuomo begins preparing his 2016-17 budget, the pending bill is the legislature's signal that it will seek far more state aid if there is any extension of annual tuition increases next year, which is a legislative election year.
"The students have upheld their end of the bargain, the state has done a better job by not decreasing their investment, but the state has not made investments commensurate with those of the students," said Senate Higher Education Committee chairman Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).
In 2011, annual tuition was $4,970 at SUNY and $4,830 at CUNY for an in-state undergraduate student. SUNY tuition is now $6,470 a year and CUNY's is $6,330. Fees and room and board drive the total cost to more than $20,000 a year.
Yet SUNY and CUNY tuition remains among the lower costs of public systems nationwide as student loan debt becomes a growing burden. Even as tuition increased, enrollment grew to nearly 460,000 students at SUNY's 64 campuses and to more than 274,000 students at CUNY's 23 campuses, an all-time high for the system in New York City.
Cuomo is considering the bill and had no comment on it. But his Division of Budget presents an argument that state aid to SUNY rose more than 10 percent in five years while rising over 16 percent for CUNY. That's significantly more than before Cuomo took office.
But the Senate and Assembly higher education committees, labor unions and the student-backed New York Public Interest Research Group said a 2 percent increase in state aid each year isn't enough to cover the fast-rising costs of higher education.
The rational tuition plan is supported by SUNY and CUNY administrations, but they also have sought increases in state aid to cover rising operational and labor costs.
"These costs limit the amount of rational tuition revenue that can be reinvested in student success by our state-operated institutions," SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher told lawmakers in state budget hearings in February. "While we have seen great results under the rational tuition plan, I know we could have reached greater success and aided more students if these centrally negotiated costs had been covered."