Will Tuition Devolution for NY State Schools Hurt the Working Class?

Richard Greenwald

Today, New York’s Governor, David Patterson, will reveal his budget for the coming fiscal year. In his proposal is a plan to let the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) systems set their own tuition. On Friday, Patterson said”

Currently, Albany micromanages everything fron the chalk campuses purchase to the cost of tuition that students pay.… this burdensome overregulation threatens the ability of our public higher education systems to promote economic development and successfully adapt to changing educational and fiscal circumstances.”

How will this affect working-class students? Well that depends on how this unfolds.

SUNY and CUNY have long argued that they need to be freed from this legislative hold. Over the last 20 years, funding for public education has diminished to the point that those in public higher education have a joke that is no longer funny: public universities used to be publicly financed, then they were publicly supported and now they are publicly located.

During the Reagan years, concern over public spending forced a retrenchment in public support for higher education. Public universities were forced to demonstrate their worth and fiscal responsibility. In the past twenty years, they have done both. Doing more with less and assessing outcomes have been the new mantra.

To survive in these mean fiscal times, SUNY and CUNY (among others) have had to make some serious choices about the type of education it offers. Adjunct usage has gone up as colleges try to hold onto quality. It is amazing how well SUNY and CUNY gave done in this environment.

One of the survival mechanisms SUNY and CUNY have resorted to has been an over-reliance on fees. While the state legislature sets tuition, the boards of the universities and in some cases the local campuses set fees. Therefore, fees have sky rocketed in the past decade, becoming a form of shadow tuition.

I worked at SUNY in the mid-’90s and remember the cries for local campus control of tuition and a general agreement within the system that the board should set tuition. Now, the systems may get what they ask for if the governor’s proposal becomes law.

This may be a great thing for working-class students in New York. It might mean that the systems can reallocate resources better, purchase goods more economically and be incentivize to save money because it will be theirs to reallocate.

But.…and this is a huge but…it might also lead to a form of congestion pricing for the most desired programs. Nancy Zimpher, SUNY’s Chancellor told the New York Times that certain high demand programs in business and the technologies might have higher tuition than say those in the humanities.

This possible scenario might have dire consequences for working-class students if not managed well. First, we know that working-class students tend to major in more practical or applied majors such as business and technologies, which means they might face a significantly increased tuition increase. Second, as these areas will be the biggest revenue generators for the system, they will likely get more and more resources, which could mean a steady decline for humanities and social science education.

The outcomes are uncertain. The governor’s budget has not even been passed yet. But assuming it is, and that this new higher education reform is a part of it, we should watch carefully how it plays out as it could be either a boast or a bust for the poorer college students.

Richard Greenwald is a labor historian and social critic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal among others. He is currently writing a book on the rise of freelancing and is co-editing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which features essays from the county’s leading labor scholars and public intellectuals.
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