Not much action as college costs rise

Published Oct 11, 2018 at 4:00pm

It’s that time again; colleges have opened across New York and for many students, the campus experience will have a profound impact on their lives.

The public benefits too: more highly trained residents have a positive impact on the economic health of the state, the nation, and the world. 

Despite the obvious benefits from public investments, New York has been shifting the costs of attending college from the state to students and their families. The result has been dramatic: over 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt. That means that roughly one in four American adults are paying off student loans.  When they graduate, the average student loan borrower has over $37,000 in student loan debts, a $20,000 increase from 13 years ago.

Much handwringing has occurred over this trend, but not much action.

Here in New York, Gov. Cuomo has successfully advanced a proposal to make it easier for some to pay off their debts. The “Get on Your Feet Loan Forgiveness Program” provides some federal student loan debt relief. The governor also got legislative approval for his Excelsior Scholarship program which allows some middle income students to attend public college tuition-free.

While both of these programs’ goals are laudable, both are very limited in their impact. Most students are ineligible, and that’s by design.

Since 2011, state law has allowed for tuition hikes at CUNY and SUNY of hundreds of dollars per year. And thanks to that law, tuition has gone up, totaling a whopping 35% increase. The law allowing these tuition hikes has been linked to another provision, one that requires the state to “maintain” its support for CUNY and SUNY.

But, as is too often the case, the fine print spelled out a different scenario. The state’s “maintenance of effort” did not include inflation and other cost increases. As a result, state support for higher education has been stagnant while costs have increased; meaning that student dollars are being used to close state budget shortfalls.

Gov. Cuomo will have an opportunity to stop those shortfalls. Both houses of the Legislature unanimously approved legislation that requires the state to cover the inflationary costs at CUNY and SUNY. It is expected that the legislation will land on the governor’s desk soon.

Now is the time for New York to reverse its policy of increasing costs to attend college, boosting state support is an important first step.

— Aaqilah Wright, NYPIRG Project Leader, Syracuse University and SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry