As Higher Ed Finances Erode, Albany Offers No Change in Direction

Posted by NYPIRG on July 8, 2024 at 7:32 am

Summers eventually give way to falls and with that change comes the openings of colleges and universities.  In New York, most colleges open their doors in the third week of August, a mere seven weeks or so from now.  The summers are the time for colleges to take stock of their previous academic year and plan for the one ahead.

For too many years the financial situation for colleges — both public and private — has been eroding.  Closures of private colleges have been matched with shrinking numbers of academic programs at public colleges.  The universities — both public and private — have largely been spared from having to confront weakening finances, but four year colleges and community colleges have been weathering a worsening situation.

Some of this was to be expected.  Enrollments have been declining due, at least in part, to a smaller 18 to 24 year old demographic.  And the Covid pandemic accelerated the financial problems of colleges that were already struggling.  For example, even before the Covid pandemic, SUNY had been hemorrhaging enrollments.  Covid made it worse.

While it is true that the young adult demographic is shrinking, more than one half of college-age individuals do not attend college.  Surely more would attend college if it was accessible and affordable.

What has been unexpected is Albany’s failure to develop any real plan to respond to the situation. After all, New York has the largest public higher education system in the country.  If there has been a state government review and plan, it has not been made publicly available.  No hearings have been held, no blue ribbon panels convened, no overall plan on how — or whether — the state will respond.  This is true despite SUNY touting that “[s]ince its founding, the SUNY system has evolved to meet the changing needs of New York’s students, communities, and workforce.”

As lawmakers were putting on the finishing touches of the 2024 legislative session, advocacy groups used that time to publicly call for action on legislation still in play.  Notable among the end-of-session advocacy was when the union representing SUNY faculty held a news conference outside the state Assembly chambers to decry the continued failure to adequately support all of the SUNY campuses.  The leaders then marched down to the SUNY main offices to issue their demand that state funding be targeted to the colleges that are the most financially struggling.

Choosing the state Capitol as the location for their presser made it clear that the ultimate failure to provide a meaningful road map to address the worsening finances of SUNY’s four year colleges lies with Governor Hochul and the legislative leaders.  It is these leaders who develop the budget that public colleges rely on and it is they who provide financial assistance to students attending private colleges.

This year, both the Albany-based College of St. Rose and Wells College, located in central New York, closed their doors after their Spring semesters ended. 

The closures of colleges is not unique to New York.  According to one recent estimate, colleges have been closing at a rate of one per week this year.  Yet, just because the nation is also experiencing a crisis does not mean that state leaders can ignore the situation.

A failure to act does not simply reduce the choices for would-be college students.  And it isn’t simply about the disruption for those students attending a college that abruptly shuts its doors.  Colleges and universities have important jobs: they train the next generation of workers and help them to better understand civic life.  In addition, they are economic engines that create jobs that stimulate and anchor local economies.  They offer a stimulus to local economies that are virtually guaranteed to succeed with proper support.

Policymakers too often look at the newest “shiny object” when it comes to economic development policies.  In New York, we have seen very expensive plans fail and in some cases even become mired in corruption.

Why not view public investments in colleges and universities as the cornerstone to economic development instead of a pay-as-you-go experience for college students and their families?

Yet, there appears to be an unspoken view that New York has too many colleges and that letting higher education “natural selection” take its course will lead to a more efficient system.  While that form of higher education “Darwinism” may have some economic appeal, it ignores the reality of the impact on communities all across New York. 

In many places, it is the local college that provides the jobs, stimulates business growth, and boosts overall economic vitality of local communities.  A failure to recognize the important benefits of local colleges undermines the state’s efforts to enhance its economic development.  The public expects leaders to make smart choices under challenging circumstances.  That requires fact finding, analysis and planning.  The governor and Legislature should get cracking this summer as it has plenty of “homework” to do when it comes to higher education.