Call for Change in New York

State commission recommends renewed spending on higher education, including a research investment fund, more student aid and less regulation of tuition increases.
December 18, 2007

New York has seen its share of commissions on the condition of higher education offerings in the state. None, however, has been as forceful or as wide-ranging as the one released on Monday to significant fanfare from the state's private and public college stakeholders.

Charged by Gov. Eliot Spitzer last May to make recommendations for improving the academic quality and accessibility of New York's sprawling network of colleges, universities and professional schools, the commission called for a "compact" between students, federal research agencies, private donors and the state to boost funding for public colleges and universities; sustained spending on financial aid for low-income and needy students; an investment fund promoting research; a commitment to hiring at least 2,000 new full-time faculty members, including 250 "eminent scholars" lured by competitive salaries; increased freedom for campuses to set tuition rates, manage their own funds and focus on institution-specific missions; and less red tape.

The governor, a Democrat, has made improving the nation's largest public university system -- which is also one of the youngest -- a top priority for his administration, although putting the recommendations into practice will undoubtedly depend on overcoming political roadblocks in the New York Legislature, especially the historically Republican Senate. How deep the opposition will be remains unclear, and officials in both Albany and various colleges have remained vague on how, practically, enough funding could be secured. While injecting additional billions in state appropriations at a time of fiscal uncertainty is bound to be controversial, many lawmakers have an interest in promoting the campuses located in their districts. Spitzer has not weighed in on which of the recommendations he'd back in the report (available here), which is preliminary and will be subject to feedback and review before the final draft is due in June.

The report's ambitious (and costly) recommendations reflect a growing unease from a wide range of public and private college officials in New York about rising competition not only from institutions in other states, but overseas as well. For New York in particular, a state whose public university system has long had less funding and more complexity than its peers, improving higher education is seen as the key to boosting the flagging local economy, which has seen cities upstate (like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse) bleeding residents -- especially younger ones considered vital to the financial health of a community.

"Where the great universities are, there the jobs have migrated," Spitzer said at the announcement. But achieving the goal of a nationally competitive system of public and private research universities -- without overlooking undergraduate education and career training institutes -- will take an uphill struggle on many fronts.

"The State of New York has powerful advantages. We are among the wealthiest of states in the United States, and we have massive scale in our higher education infrastructure, with a vast array of excellent private and public institutions that is virtually unmatched anywhere," states the report. "But our advantageous position is, the Commission has concluded, precarious. Others want what we have, and are investing heavily to surpass us. The prosperity we have enjoyed is at stake."

New York's public higher education system, the report says, has a history of chronic "underinvestment" relative to comparable to public systems in other states. Using state support per full-time enrolled student as a measure of the declining state support for its public colleges and universities, the report finds a 28.5-percent decrease in constant 1992 dollars. Even so, some 57 percent of undergraduates enrolled in the state's public universities receive Pell Grants -- a significantly higher percentage than many of New York's peer institutions in other states. Similar deficiencies persist along ethnic and racial lines: 18 percent of Hispanic residents in the state have college degrees, compared to 45 percent of white people.

The gaps in research funding are just as stark. New York's slice of the national R&D pie has shrunk almost consistently over the past 25 years, and the top grantees of research dollars remain the state's private institutions, as shown in the two charts below:

New York's Share of National Research and Development Funding

Year % Share of National
Academic R&D Dollars
1980 10.0%
1985 9.8%
1990 8.6%
1995 8.0%
2000 7.6%
2005 7.9%

Top New York Institutions' Research and Development Dollars

  FY 2005 FY 2006 $ Change (in thousands) % Change FY 2005 State Rank FY 2006 State Rank Rank Change
Cornell U. $606,804 $648,802 $41,998 6.9% 1 1  
Columbia U. $546,093 $541,356 ($4,737) -0.9% 2 2  
U. of Rochester $345,337 $366,658 $21,321 6.2% 3 3  
SUNY Buffalo $267,271 $297,909 $30,638 11.5% 5 4 +1
New York U. $276,198 $284,164 $7,966 2.9% 4 5 -1
SUNY Albany $259,708 $274,354 $14,646 5.6% 6 6  

Source: Preliminary Report of the New York State Commission on Higher Education

In that context, the commission -- chaired by the former Cornell University president Hunter R. Rawlings III -- set forth a broad array of wide-ranging recommendations, oftentimes using systems and laws in better-performing "peer states" (California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio,
Pennsylvania and Texas) as a model.

Among those recommendations are:

  • Creating a low-interest, state-subsidized student loan program, financed by tax-exempt state bonds, to make college more accessible to low-income students who are residents of New York. Additionally, the report recommends a $70 million increase in benefits from the state's need-based Tuition Assistance Program for students from families with annual incomes between $40,000 and $60,000, graduate students and "wards of the State." In the announcement on Monday, Rawlings noted that special attention was paid to "underprivileged children." "This is especially important within the minority community, which is growing larger in proportion" to the state population as a whole, he said.
  • Hiring 2,000 new full-time faculty members over the next five years at the State University of New York and the City University of New York, with 250 targeted specifically as "eminent scholars" who would attract investment, research dollars and highly qualified peers. The report adds that "every effort should be made to ensure a net increase in intellectual capital by recruiting hires from out of state, to the extent possible." It also calls for an additional 4,000 graduate students at SUNY and CUNY combined and a boost in their stipends, which lag those of their peers at top research universities. Currently, 52.2 percent of faculty at four-year public institutions are full-time professors, according to the report, which places New York at the bottom of its peer group in that category. (For Texas, by comparison, the figure is 78.7 percent.)
  • Establishing an Empire State Innovation Fund, a $3 billion venture that would finance and create incentives for research that would benefit the New York State economy in equal parts over the next 10 years. A key feature of the proposed fund is a peer-reviewed, competitive grant structure that would favor "cross-sector collaboration between public and private universities." No single institution would receive more than 10 percent of the yearly funds available.
  • A "compact" between stakeholders in higher education intended to spread risk and share the financial commitments to support the state's public system of colleges and universities. Based on a system in place at CUNY for three years and adopted this year at SUNY, it would charge the state with covering all "mandatory" costs including labor contracts and energy, while colleges and universities would commit to reducing inefficiencies, boosting fund raising efforts and adjusting their enrollment and tuition figures to increase revenue. In contrast to the current system, in which tuition increases are caught up in the legislative appropriations process -- the last such hike was in 2003, ranging from 25 to 28 percent -- the report calls for more flexibility in setting rates at "modest" and "predictable" intervals. "In contrast to New York State public universities, most of the outstanding public research institutions in the country (University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to name but a few) are able to set tuition levels that take into account their missions, cost structures and needs," the report notes. "A number of members of the Commission have served in senior positions at these institutions, and assert that the ability to set tuition at an appropriate level has been an essential element in the success of these institutions." The price tag for New York State would be at least $1 billion over the next five years.
  • Focusing specifically on boosting SUNY's top research universities -- Albany, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Buffalo -- to national prominence. The commission recommends identifying the strengths at these four campuses, designated "University Centers," and promoting "those distinctive missions in planning and goal-setting." The report states: "There is no leading public higher education system in this nation that does not have excellent research universities, and one or more flagship campuses, and the SUNY structure should be modified accordingly. The Commission recognizes the progress that both Stony Brook and the University at Buffalo -- the only public members of the [the Association of American Universities] in New York State -- have made in becoming major research universities."
  • The creation of Education Partnership Zones that would encourage collaboration from pre-kindergarten to graduate school levels. Acknowledging the importance of K-12 schooling to college success, the report urges "access to higher education through mutually beneficial, innovative education partnerships between high-need school districts and institutions of higher education." A major component of the EPZ plan is a "Million Dollar Promise" that would guarantee a tuition-free public college education to seventh- and eighth-grade students in such high-risk zones meeting grade-level achievement standards and high school graduation requirements.
  • Noting that a third of students entering four-year colleges in CUNY and SUNY are transfers (many from community colleges), the report urges a legally mandated and consistent "articulation" policy for credits between institutions.
  • Clearing the $5 billion backlog in critical maintenance through a 10-year "sustained program of capital reinvestment."

Responses to the Report

The overall sense among commission members and those who stand to be affected by the report's recommendations is that it's a long overdue but welcome sign that the governor takes higher education reform seriously. For most stakeholders -- the public research universities, smaller SUNY campuses, the CUNY system and private institutions -- the report prescribes the necessary medicine for a long-faltering and underfinanced system. For others notably faculty unions, it doesn't go far enough in demanding state support for public higher education.

At the same time, many campuses already have strategic proposals in place that mirror some of the recommendations, although one of the main ingredients they've lacked so far is funding to back them up. SUNY, for example, is already planning on adding 1,000 full-time faculty to its ranks, according to John B. Clark, the system's interim chancellor and a commission member.

"This report is very consistent with the goals and objectives that we at Binghamton have been working on, and this will be a tremendous help to us as we continue to build and develop our university," said Lois B. DeFleur, that campus's president and a member of the commission. She said, for example, that Binghamton has averaged 15- to 20-percent yearly increases in externally funded research, compared with an average of around 1 percent for the SUNY system.

The flexibility to increase tuition rates would also be a welcome liberation from the political arena, she said, and despite a state economy that is "not robust," it would be necessary for key stakeholders to "make investments in higher education because it is so important to the future of the state." Spitzer and Rawlings seemed to hope that the presence of legislators on the commission would provide potential support in the Legislature for the necessary investments, in addition to the "Compact" formula that attempts to diversify the revenue streams for higher education beyond tax-levied state support.

For John B. Simpson, the president of SUNY Buffalo and another commission member, one of the most important aspects of the report, beyond increased financial support, was the call to decrease regulations. He noted that "in my view, some of the most fundamental operational issues that hold Buffalo back are being dealt with in the report," such as regulations on tuition and procurement.

At the same time, he said it was significant that the report recognizes the importance of inter-institutional collaboration in research projects. "My sense is, perhaps there is a subtext in the report that encourages, in ways that haven’t necessarily been the case before, collaboration among research universities in New York," he said, including between private and public institutions.

But if the commission would beef up research, and focus specifically on the state's four public research universities, the question remains of what that would mean for some of SUNY's smaller, more undergraduate-focused campuses. "New York in the past has followed a tradition of spreading resources among all institutions, within SUNY," Simpson explained. "I think that’s the wrong approach, and what I favor is the institution and the state making a decision about what are the strategic investments...."

Christopher C. Dahl, the president of SUNY Geneseo, pointed out that research doesn't only happen at doctoral institutions. "While it’s important to support, and I fully agree with the recommendations about supporting the research missions of the research centers, one should not lose track of the fact that significant sponsored research occurs on many of the four-year campuses," he said. "I would anticipate that Geneseo will aggressively seek support for very strong research faculty."

The report was written mainly with the health of SUNY in mind, although its scope also encompasses CUNY, private colleges and community colleges. Abraham M. Lackman, the president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (and a Rawlings commission member), said he feels that most of the recommendations "would share in a fair way" the funding resources with the private institutions his organization represents -- although that excludes the "compact" whose funding scheme applies explicitly to the public colleges and universities.

When Spitzer decided to set up the commission, he was "lamenting more about SUNY than CUNY," said Matthew Goldstein, the chancellor of the city university system and a participant in the review process. As a result, the report focuses largely on the SUNY and CUNY systems as a whole. CUNY does, however, get explicit mention in the recommendations on transferring credits and remedial education.

"In its 1999 report, An Institution Adrift, the Mayor's Task Force on CUNY, headed by Benno Schmidt, recommended that all remedial instruction be removed from CUNY's senior colleges and left to the expertise of the community college faculty and staff," the commission's report states. "Eight years later, few would dispute the extraordinary success of this change. In the words of the Center for an Urban Future, CUNY is no longer 'adrift' but is a 'national leader.' Remediation at SUNY has long been the purview of its community colleges."

But at least one group is still lamenting about CUNY, or at least the system's level of support from the government: its faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

"CUNY has 5,000 fewer full-time faculty now than it did in 1975, despite record enrollments," states a release from the union. "At the rate the Commission is suggesting CUNY add faculty, it would take a quarter of a century to regain our full faculty strength. CUNY needs more than incremental increases; CUNY needs a historic reinvestment to reverse the effects of the historic disinvestment and to be part of a premier public higher education system."

The PSC also criticized shifting an additional financial burden to students and raised the issue of competitive salaries for faculty, "a subject the report is silent on," noted Barbara Bowen, the union's president.

"We hope that the commission in its final report will address the issue of the need for competitive faculty salaries ... not a few eminent faculty who are well-compensated," Bowen said. "What’s needed is a restoration of competitive salaries."


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