New York State Sen. Kevin Thomas, a Levittown Democrat, recently proposed a bill to cap tuition at all SUNY and CUNY schools at $5,000 per year for in-state students. We believe the measure deserves serious consideration in the Legislature and by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Thomas’s bill does not say how the state would offset the roughly $140 million shortfall the cap would create. That’s a fatal flaw in the legislation, but at least Thomas is considering how to make higher education affordable for young people, many of whom are drowning in student-loan debt.
Right now, high school seniors are starting to receive their financial aid packages from the colleges that have accepted them, and that process will continue through April 1. For many, the sticker shock of having to pay tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars is starting to set in.
Tuition freezes have gained ground over the past half-dozen years. Purdue University became one of the first large public colleges to adopt a freeze for state residents in 2013, and public universities in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin have followed suit. Some private colleges and universities have done the same.
New York had capped SUNY and CUNY tuition increases at $300 per year from 2011 to 2016, but the State Legislature failed to renew the cap in 2016-17, and has not done so since.
Since 2017, the state has provided the Excelsior Scholarship to students admitted to SUNY and CUNY schools, but their families must make less than $125,000 a year. That might sound like a great deal of money in most parts of the state, but with a cost-of-living index 1.5 times higher here than in the rest of New York, many Long Island middle-class families must earn more than that — perhaps considerably more — just to make ends meet, and as a result don’t qualify for the scholarship.
The average American 2019 graduate has more than $32,000 in student loans. Federally guaranteed student loans must be repaid within 10 years, and carry interest rates as high as 6 to 7 percent. Private loans often trap students in the debt cycle for decades, and also carry relatively high interest rates.
No wonder Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loans.
A number of colleges were once free. When Baruch College, now part of the City University of New York system, was founded in 1847, it became the first free college in New York. Cooper Union, founded in 1859 in Manhattan, was also free until recently.
Now, tuition at Baruch costs more than $7,000 a year. At Cooper Union, the tuition is $43,500. Every admitted student receives a scholarship worth half that amount, so tuition is, effectively, $21,750 a year.
Many colleges offer scholarships and grants, but often only to the very top students, with perfect or near-perfect grades and SAT scores in the top 3 to 5 percent. Even an excellent “profile” does not ensure a scholarship or grant. Many schools offer them only to the neediest students with spotless transcripts.
What about everyone else?
A college degree is still the great leveler. College graduates have more employment choices, and earn more throughout their working lives, than those with only high school diplomas. The question is, what can we do as a society to ensure that more students are able to attend college without the crushing debt burden that so many now face?
The Purdue experiment showed how colleges could survive on less tuition by increasing revenue from other sources, like research grants, while cutting costs. Government and industry use research universities like SUNY Stony Brook to develop new products and processes. Many advances in medicine were developed at universities, and students serve as research assistants on many projects — a double win.
The average U.S. college or university now depends on tuition for at least 50 percent of its revenue. Meanwhile, many of the world’s leading universities charge students little or nothing. Zürich’s Technical University, No. 3 on the CareerAddict list of the world’s best engineering schools, charges Swiss citizens $1,300 a year in tuition. (Foreigners pay twice that.) Harvard University, No. 4 on the same list, charges more than $51,000. The three Chinese universities in the top 10 charge nothing.
So it is possible to charge less and still maintain great universities, if there is a will. What we need is the will.