After a long period of funding cuts and stagnation, public higher education in New York state got an infusion of hope last year when Governor Kathy Hochul proposed a historic funding increase, allocating $8.5 billion—including $1.5 billion in new funding—to the State University of New York and City University of New York systems.
In her latest budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, the Democratic governor pledged $7.5 billion, slightly less than FY2023. She has said that her five-year funding plan aims to be “transformative” for the state’s public higher education institutions, with the ultimate goal of getting two-thirds of New Yorkers a postsecondary credential.
Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions, SUNY’s faculty union, said the leadership transition has opened up possibilities for state support that simply didn’t seem possible under former governor Andrew Cuomo, whose nearly 10-year tenure ended in 2021 amid sexual misconduct allegations and under whom the state’s higher education budgets were often on the chopping block.
“Governor Cuomo didn’t value SUNY … he shifted the model pretty extensively towards a dependence on tuition, fees, room and board, and state commitment was pretty much flat throughout his whole tenure,” Kowal said. “Governor Hochul has a completely different attitude.”
This shift, Kowal said, comes at a precipitous moment for the state’s colleges and universities.
But many leaders and faculty members at New York’s public higher ed institutions also say the increased support isn’t enough to pull them out of the financial pit created by years of state cuts and disinvestment. Before making SUNY and CUNY “leaders in global higher education,” they say, Hochul must first make up for the damage done under her predecessor.
“Transformation is only possible once you’ve achieved financial stability,” Kowal said. “We need to make up for years of cuts and neglect before we can get there.”
Institutional leaders have cheered the budget boost. Both the SUNY and CUNY chancellors extolled the “historic” increase and the good it would do for their systems.
Stephen Kolison, president of SUNY Fredonia, which is currently operating with a $16 million deficit, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that he was “pleased” with Hochul’s “unprecedented support to advance SUNY’s vision.”
But many faculty, staff and union leaders in the state’s public higher ed systems are more measured in their praise, saying that while the much-needed infusion is a step in the right direction, it’s not nearly enough to overcome decades of disinvestment and cuts.
“Going back to the great recession, we’ve seen massive cuts that were never really made whole,” Kowal said. “This new funding brings an end to austerity, but it falls short of what these campuses need to grow and survive.”
Hochul’s plan would not create a separate or targeted funding mechanism for the most financially challenged campuses, Kowal said, and the funding boost also comes with the caveat that institutions raise tuition, a move students and faculty have decried.
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Buffalo State University president Katherine Conway-Turner, whose institution is also facing a $16 million deficit, applauded Hochul’s proposal while highlighting her campus’s ongoing fiscal struggles.
“After years of state budgets that kept SUNY funding flat, [Hochul] has made higher education one of her priorities since she took office,” Conway-Turner said. “Still, we’re facing financial challenges … We know we can begin to reverse some of these declines through new initiatives.”
Kowal said that’s especially true for institutions that have been disproportionately affected by cuts over the years and are now “facing severe financial challenges.” Those include SUNY campuses at Fredonia, Potsdam, Canton and Plattsburgh, in addition to Buffalo State, all of which are operating with deficits of more than $5 million.
Some of those institutions have begun using the funding boost from last year to hire more faculty and chip away at their deficits, Kowal added, but “most aren’t feeling the effects yet. They’re just too deep in the hole.”
James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), CUNY’s faculty and staff union, accused Cuomo of being antagonistic to public higher education in New York and to CUNY in particular. Adjusted for inflation, state aid to CUNY fell by more than 5 percent since 2011, when Cuomo first took office. In 2016, Cuomo attempted to slash the CUNY budget by $500 million and only reneged after facing public backlash; in 2020 he was poised to make even more significant cuts before his ouster.
By contrast, Hochul’s FY2024 budget proposal includes $94 million in new funds for CUNY. Among other things, that money would help institutions fill in the so-called “TAP gap” between what tuition costs and what the state contributes through the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), allowing them to make some much-needed faculty hires.
But Davis said the damage done over the past few decades is greater than the state can realistically make up for through one-cycle infusions of support.
“Last year was a favorable turnaround. The issue is, there’s so many years of disinvestment to try to offset that any one budget cycle is not going to cut it,” he said.
To make matters worse, he said, the city government, which is responsible for about 40 percent of CUNY funds, is set to cut its budget for the system next fiscal year.
As a result, CUNY ordered all campuses to implement a hiring freeze and slash their budgets by at least 5 percent; those with negative budgets will have to cut more. It doesn’t help that enrollments have fallen by over 10 percent across the system since 2019.
Some CUNY campuses are struggling more than others, Davis said—especially the system’s seven community colleges and four-year institutions that primarily serve students of color. That’s largely because CUNY has become more tuition-dependent as the TAP gap has widened over time, and institutions with more high-need students have had to spend more to fill in that gap.
Davis said this disparity is clearest in faculty-student ratios at institutions that have had to prioritize tuition assistance over making new hires.
“The greater the proportion of students of color on our campuses, the less likely they are to have access to full-time faculty,” he said. “That’s often the difference between somebody persisting to get their associate degree or their bachelor’s.”
Eighty-five percent of students at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn are Black, the highest of any CUNY campus; the college also has some of the worst retention rates in the system. In 2015 its graduation rate for both two-year and four-year degrees was under 20 percent—more than 40 percent lower than the national average for public institutions.
“Students often have to work full-time, and in order to be eligible for maximum tuition, they have to be enrolled as full-time students, which is a very difficult balance,” said Esther Llamas, an academic student support program specialist at Medgar Evers. “On top of that, wraparound services the students really need”—like academic support, childcare and mental health counseling—“just aren’t there like they used to be.”
Susan Kang, a professor of political science at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is no stranger to what she calls the “age of austerity” for New York public higher education. When Cuomo recommended cutting the CUNY budget by almost half a million dollars in 2016, a seven-months-pregnant Kang was arrested protesting in front of his office in Albany.
And while she acknowledges gains have been made under Hochul, she also believes a new kind of austerity is setting in.
“I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ve only ever worked under a period of austerity and belt tightening,” she said. “We had a good year last year with state funding, but now we’re in a new age of austerity, a kind of pre-emptive austerity … it’s a question of funding priorities, seeing who the mayor and the state really want to serve.”
The solution, Kang, Llamas and Davis agreed, is a long-term funding plan to get CUNY back on track, erase the deficits of its most troubled institutions and—eventually—restore the system’s initial promise of free tuition for all students. That plan is the “New Deal for CUNY,” legislation touted by the PSC that would provide $1.7 billion in new funding for the system over the next five years. Advocates say the ambitious bill is a long way from being passed, but that progress is easier under the new governor.
“We know it’s a big-ticket ask, but we’ve been able to expand the number of sponsors on the bill and gain a lot of traction in both chambers of the state Legislature,” Davis said.
Llamas recently returned from a lobbying trip to Albany, where she and a cadre of supporters promoted the New Deal for CUNY plan to lawmakers.
“I definitely believe there’s been a promising shift,” she said.