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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled a plan to strengthen the state’s sprawling 64-campus public higher education system early last January, describing it as particularly ambitious.
It would be a “transformational” Hochul office he said thena plan that would establish the State University of New York as “the best statewide system of public higher education in our country.”
However, the vision and the standards associated with it were too ambitious for some higher scholars.
They asked: How could SUNY’s enrollment reach 500,000 students after the more than 20% in ten years? After all, the state fund traditional-age college students is still shrinkingand institutions across the country have not shied away from them registration crash since the pandemic.
And how could Stony Brook University and the University at Buffalo, or UB, which Hochul explained as flagship institutions last year, reap $1 billion a year in federal research funding by 2030? The governor gradually invested in this area, like millions of dollars for STEM facilities at UB, but the $1 billion goal is more in line with research funding levels at prestigious institutions like John Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley.
University experts and faculty leaders say Hochul’s goals require an influx of public funding to achieve. They seem to have made minimal progress in the year plus since she announced them.
Hochul expressed optimism about the future of the system, especially with the installation of John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education and New York City Commissioner of Education, as the new chancellor. She and some observers argue that King was the missing piece needed to assemble Hochul’s plan.
Gov. John Lindsay’s spokesman responded to questions about the feasibility of Hochula’s plan in an emailed statement.
“Governor Hochul has a bold vision to transform SUNY and ensure its status as the nation’s best and most equitable public higher education system,” Lindsay said. “Governor Hochul announced a historic investment in SUNY and welcomed the appointment of former U.S. Secretary of Education John King as chancellor, who will continue to fully realize her vision for the system.”
What is the problem with SUNY?
Although SUNY is the largest comprehensive public higher education system in the US, it suffers from trends that are ravaging college enrollment across the country.
The declining birth rate is decreasing to the number of high school graduates enrolled in the system overall, but its community colleges in particular began to drop students after the Great Recession. Fewer students tend to enroll in community colleges during periods of economic prosperity due to greater employment opportunities.
Enrollment at SUNY’s community colleges has fallen about 34% since fall 2012, down to 159,333 students in fall 2022.
Contributing to the system-wide enrollment decline was the spread of COVID-19, which led to an economic downturn that bucked previous trends and hit community college staffing the hardest.
Postsecondary education is currently showing signs of recovery, with undergraduate enrollment down only slightly, 0.6%, from the previous year. They show data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
All of these complications have left SUNY struggling for students — not just in New York’s mammoth higher-education market, which includes big-name colleges like Columbia and Cornell universities, but also among its own institutions.
SUNY’s most prominent institutions, such as the University of Buffalo, have attracted student interest from their other campuses, said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a UB professor of educational leadership and politics.
Daun-Barnett said UB was able to weather the drop in enrollment by accepting students who normally wouldn’t have, with slightly weaker academic records. This is an option that most SUNY institutions do not have because they are not overwhelmed with applicants.
What is the plan?
Part of Hochula’s strategy is redefining the roles of institutions within the system, such as elevating UB and Stony Brook as flagships.
Investments in these institutions — along with SUNY’s two other “university centers,” the University at Albany and Binghamton University — remain a big focus of the plan. The University of Albany and Binghamton have been accused of receiving $500 million in research funding each year.
The idea is that “a rising tide lifts all boats” and each SUNY institution will eventually benefit from four universities with leading national profiles, said Nancy Zimpher, who was the system’s chancellor from 2009 to 2017. Zimpher now works at the National Association of System Heads, he helps direct the Power of Systems program, a coalition of public institutions dedicated to solving some of higher education’s most pressing challenges.
Ideally, UB and Stony Brook would compete with large public research institutions like the University of Michigan, Daun-Barnett said.
Michigan’s flagship location attracts huge contingents of in-state and international students, who generally pay higher tuition. If more of these types of students came to New York’s two flagships, it would boost their finances and the increased student numbers could transfer to other SUNY institutions, Daun-Barnett said.
System invents “cascading” inputs in which students who were rejected at one SUNY institution could be accepted at another.
SUNY’s application numbers are higher, though it attributes that in large part to a recent two-week fee waiver program. It announced a “historic” increase in applications for fall 2023 — from 97,257 applications the previous year to 204,437 — an increase of 110% from November. SUNY also saw 70% more out-of-state applications.
Hochul and the system rely on King to keep this momentum going. They praised his experience as federal education secretary and his intimate knowledge of New York as its former education commissioner — though he left the state. as an unpopular character who pushed through controversial K-12 policy reforms.
Hochula’s plan changes the way SUNY has operated for years “systemicity” model. which emphasizes its strength as a unit, an approach that Zimpher advocated.
The governor’s ideas do not disrupt “systemicity,” but rather connect various institutions to their advantage, Zimpher said. Said King, who specializes in “collective impact,” is well prepared to lead this work.
Zimpher envisions SUNY guiding students through every stage of their academic career, from community college to advanced degree, which she says will require closer partnerships between institutions. SUNY can create these types of transfer agreements without friction because it has “everything under one roof,” unlike somewhere like California, where its community colleges have to tweak transfer rules using two separate four-year public systems, Zimpher said.
However, there have been concerns about the emphasis on research and flagship designations, specifically that they would fuel further institutional infighting. Shortly after Hochul announced his design for SUNY, two state legislators wrote she also thinks the University of Albany and Binghamton should become flagships — or the system should have none at all.
Has and has not
In some ways, Hochul’s plan highlighted the deep financial disparity between institutions such as the newly designated flagships — the number of which hasn’t changed in years — and institutions with deficits.
Frederick Kowal, president of the United University Professions union, which represents a large number of SUNY faculty, said at least 19 campuses are in “serious financial trouble.”
SUNY Fredonia, for example is supposed to have budget gap of up to 16 million dollars.
“There is a class divide between these university centers and the comprehensive colleges and other campuses,” Kowal said. “I see that as a potential problem.
Hochula’s initiative does not create a fund for these needy campuses, a program the union called for. He doesn’t even have one suggested a significant increase in SUNY’s general operating budget.
SUNY’s 10-year declining enrollment coincided with essentially unchanged state supportwhich followed Great Recession-era cuts that mirrored patterns across the rest of the country.
Public higher ed leaders across the country often blame mid-state support for financial woes. Observers of Pennsylvania’s state system of higher education, for example, have blamed low state funding for its difficult financial situation, which led to the recent merger of six of its institutions into two.
Daun-Barnett, the UB professor, said he fears similar consolidations for SUNY should its financially strapped campuses not receive state aid.
But King said the New York government under Hochula has made “backups” at SUNY.
He pointed at Hochul last year it allocated 53 million dollars for hiring new full-time faculty at 30 campuses, as well as $60 million to stem the bleeding in enrollment and create new academic programs. In her 2024 budget proposal, Hochul proposed creating an endowment matching fund for four university centers — UB, Stony Brook, Binghamton and Albany — in which the state would match $1 for every $2 in private contributions, up to $500 million.
Her budget plan keeps community college spending at last year’s levels. Community colleges have faced declining funding under the state’s funding formula.
“We’re going in a really good direction,” King said.
However, the budget proposal also authorizes SUNY to raise tuition by 3% at most SUNY colleges or 6% at university centers. University centers could continue to raise tuition fees for five years, capped at a 30% increase.
This he raised an eyebrow some students and advocates of access to higher education.
They questioned the wisdom of SUNY — which caters to middle-income students and is known for its affordability — teaching hiking, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Higher prices could further dampen enrollment.
King said the proposed tuition increase is modest and that more than half of full-time students do not pay tuition because of federal Pell grants or state aid. New York recently expanded one of its financial aid funds, the Tuition Assistance Program, so part-time students earning 6 to 11 credits qualify.
He said he still felt Hochula’s goals, including the benchmark of 500,000 students, were achievable — “over time.”
King rattled off a solution familiar to higher education leaders discussing enrollment woes — that SUNY has yet to fully establish itself in the market of stalled students with some credentials but no degree. Adult students will also need upskilling and may want micro-credentials, he said.
“The Board of Trustees is aligned with the goal of making SUNY the best public university system in the world,” he said.