Op-ed column: Higher Education Act won’t help SUNY students pay their tuition

You may have read about the lofty promises attached to the proposed Public Higher Education Empowerm

You may have read about the lofty promises attached to the proposed Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act. It’s been touted as a bold idea that will return New York to greatness, one that will generate 2,000 new State University of New York faculty positions and 10,000 jobs across the SUNY system, plus 65,000 construction jobs for capital projects.

But when you look beyond the hype, such grandiose promises are empty and are intended to fool you, the public.

Supporters of the act say it will produce new revenue to fulfill such promises. But where will this new-found revenue come from? It would come from students and their parents in the form of higher tuition.

The act would allow SUNY to hike tuition by as much as 10 percent. But it could increase even more, because individual campuses would be permitted to set their own “differential” tuition rates above 10 percent. That costly combination would put a higher education out of reach for thousands of New York families. According to a state Assembly committee report, if the tuition mechanism prescribed in the act had been in effect in 2003, tuition would have risen by 92 percent.

Aborting the mission

SUNY’s mission statement promises a quality education with the “broadest possible access,” and tuition “which most effectively promotes the university’s access goals.” But skyrocketing tuition rates would leave SUNY’s mission by the wayside.

Proponents promise that allowing SUNY to freely engage in partnerships with minimal oversight would unleash a new source of revenue. This prospect is based more on wishful thinking than reality. History shows that most such partnerships have not proven to be lucrative. Some have even lost millions of dollars. There is no new evidence to suggest that SUNY can raise revenues from such joint ventures.

The land the state has purchased for SUNY campuses is meant to serve the needs of students first and foremost. But the act contains a provision permitting developers to use SUNY property for purposes outside the campuses’ academic mission. That provision opens the door to individual campus presidents making deals with private developers for the primary purpose of making money rather than serving the best interests of students.

Because any such construction would be on state-owned property, developers would get a real property tax exemption. Financially strapped localities lose tax revenue — placing more of a tax burden on homeowners — while private developers get a free ride.

What happens if and when these joint ventures don’t work out? SUNY campuses would be left to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of vacant buildings, using funds that could better be spent on student services.

The act also would repeal provisions of the law that require pre-approval of SUNY contracts for services without the approval of the attorney general and comptroller. Instead of pre-contractual approvals, post audits would be substituted. That would leave SUNY with no accountability for its spending decisions. Transparency of SUNY operations would be virtually eliminated.

Ducking responsibility

If the act is approved, it would give the state the opportunity to walk away from its responsibility to financially support SUNY. Why do we think that would happen? In years that the Legislature has approved a tuition increase for SUNY, the level of state support declined. By allowing SUNY to freely boost tuition on its own, lawmakers would not place a high priority on funding SUNY since it would theoretically have alternative revenue sources.

SUNY would become a state university in name only. It would effectively proceed down the perilous path toward privatization. In these difficult economic times, New York families need help in educating their children so that they can become productive citizens. Many of them can’t afford to send their children to private institutions. If they can’t afford SUNY, where do they turn for a college education?

The act does have one saving grace. It contains language allowing SUNY to purchase goods without the state’s pre-audit process. Campuses wouldn’t be hamstrung in buying machinery or have to jump through needless bureaucratic hoops.

But the rest of the act is not good for SUNY, not good for New York, not good for New York’s working families. Don’t be fooled by its backers who promote the act as a way to create new educational and economic opportunities. Rather, it would have just the opposite effect.

I urge you to contact the state Assembly member and Senator who represent you and tell them to just say no to the act. Or, you can visit savesuny.org to register your opposition.

Phillip H. Smith is president of United University Professions, the union representing 35,000 faculty and professional staff at SUNY’s 29 state-operated campuses.

Categories: Opinion

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