Until 1963, students at State University of New York campuses paid no tuition.
That investment helped New York and the United States become world leaders in upward mobility. It created a society that believed everyone could exceed the accomplishments of their parents -- and many did. It was an expensive commitment to public education.
We still provide K-12 schooling for free, so why does picking up the tab for four years of college at in-state public schools sound preposterous? Perhaps because as public universities get less and less funding from state budgets, the idea of free college sounds impossible. College costs continue to skyrocket, and parents worry as they see a generation shackled by student debt. This has changed young people's lives -- postponing marriage, families and home purchases.
It seems that the dream of upward mobility is dying. Studies show the United States has fewer people moving up the income chain than most Western nations. While an undergraduate degree no longer guarantees mobility, it is still a big part of success. And reversing that unsustainable path has become a highlight of the 2016 presidential election.
Nationally, state funding of public universities has dropped 16 percent since 2008. In New York, direct state funding for SUNY's 64-campus system has declined 28 percent since 2008. State officials point to significant increases in other college support, like Tuition Assistance Program grants. That has helped some students, but it's not nearly as effective as state funding of colleges in keeping down tuition for all students.
The decreased funding has led to tuition increases and difficulty running and staffing campuses. In 2007, the state paid about 50 percent of SUNY's operating budget, and tuition covered the other 50 percent. This year, direct state funding will cover about 30 percent, and student tuition will pay nearly 70.
In 2011, a state law allowed SUNY tuition to rise $300 per year for five years. This fall, annual tuition is $6,470, not including room and board, cheap by national standards, but expensive by New York's historical ones.
Direct state support for community colleges like the hugely popular ones in Nassau and Suffolk also has dropped significantly as a percentage of expenses. And unlike our public four-year colleges, which are a relative bargain, our community colleges are among the most expensive in the country. The national average for a year of community college and fees is $3,250, but both Nassau and Suffolk county's community colleges are about $4,800 per year.
Higher tuition and student debt are generating a lot of heat in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton says she would eliminate the need for college students to borrow for public university educations and would lighten the load for those who've already borrowed. Those in debt would refinance at lower rates, and she would dedicate $350 billion to incentivize states to better fund universities and expand work-study programs. Her plan also would force universities to better control spending, which is crucial. Many universities have too many professors on sabbaticals, educational programs few enroll in and ambitious construction agendas that are not always about education.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a $700 billion plan to make public college education free, which doesn't seem likely. There's nothing wrong with demanding that students and their families have some skin in the game. We just need to stop skinning them alive.
In Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been presented with a bill requiring the state increase to public university funding to cover nondiscretionary cost increases. He ought to sign it. However, college leaders need to understand that per-pupil costs, like all government costs in the tax-cap era, can't be allowed to outpace inflation. That means campuses must run efficiently and everyone, including faculty, must be a part of keeping costs down.
A public college education shouldn't be financially crippling. It also shouldn't be so expensive that it forces students into high-paying fields and away from what might be passions for the humanities or performing arts. The universities need to control costs. Our tax dollars need to pick up more of the tab. And we need to go back to being the upward-mobility capital of the world.