Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On "Dismantling" SUNY: A Response to Lawrence Wittner

On March 8th, SUNY Albany Professor of History Lawrence Wittner posted "Dismantling SUNY, America's Largest Public University System" on the History News Network site. In it, he argues that the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act "set[s] the stage for dismantling America's largest public university system" by "enabl[ing] New York State to walk away from its obligation to fund public higher education and usher in a struggle for survival among individual campuses." If he's right that the PHEE&IA is a stalking horse for privatizing SUNY, then I would join him (and Phil Smith) in opposing the bill. Let's examine his argument, shall we?

After briefly tracing the long-standing and accelerating disinvestment by New York in its own state university, Wittner claims:

the Empowerment and Innovation Act takes things a giant step further, for it grants authority to the SUNY administration to raise tuition on SUNY campuses to any level it pleases. This will enable campuses to recoup losses in state revenue by charging much higher tuition than in the past. In short, the cost of public higher education will be shifted from the state to students and their parents.

What a tangled web of assumptions to unweave here!

ASSUMPTION 1: The PHEE&IA grants unlimited authority to the SUNY administration... Well, not quite. Let's look at the key portion of Subpart A of the bill:

(i) Commencing with the two thousand ten--two thousand eleven academic year, the president of any state-operated institution, in consultation with the respective student government and upon the recommendation of the respective college council, may recommend to the trustees, and the trustees shall be authorized to implement, differing rates of annual tuition upon the basis of campus or program:

(1) for students who are New York state residents in courses of study leading to undergraduate, graduate and first professional degrees; provided, however, that on or before June fifteenth, two thousand ten, the trustees shall promulgate guidelines outlining the criteria such campus or program must meet in order to qualify for differential rates. Such criteria shall include, but not be limited to, program cost, program mix, need, comparison with peer programs or campuses, economic elasticity, impact on access, fairness and measures to ensure that students are not steered toward certain courses of study based on ability to pay; and

(2) for all students who are not New York state residents, provided that the trustees shall establish maximum percentage enrollment limitations for such students.

(ii) Notwithstanding the foregoing, any tuition increases implemented pursuant to this subparagraph, other than pursuant to clause (i) of this subparagraph[,] shall not exceed two and a half times the five-year rolling average of the higher education price index. (page 56, lines 9-31)

Yes, there are serious problems with some of this language, which I'll get to in a moment. But what's worth emphasizing here is that the authority of "the SUNY administration" is limited in several ways:

(a) A campus president needs to consult with the local student government and follow a recommendation from the local college council before proposing a campus-specific tuition increase to the Board of Trustees. While this provision ought to be strengthened by adding in a requirement to consult with the local campus governance body--the University Senate, in SUNY Fredonia's case--note the several limitations on campus-level administration. Even the bounciest of rubber-stamps would find it difficult not to act as a responsible check-and-balance in the event of a proposed special tuition increase from that campus's administration. Student government representatives would run election campaigns based on their being a watchdog for student interests; peer pressure and self-interest, even more than the threat of losing their seats, would motivate them. Similarly, college councils would not want a reputation in their local community for bleeding students and their families dry.

(b) The Board of Trustees must establish guidelines based on state-mandated criteria for any differential increase in tuition. The BOT is a governor-appointed body equivalent to the Board of Directors of a corporation. They are distinct from--or to put the point more strongly, have authority over--the administration of the system and of every campus within it. Everyone in administration, from the Chancellor on down to the lowliest of management-confidential personnel, answers to them. While it's true that the SUNY BOT is only as good as the people on it, it's encouraging that Ron Ehrenberg was just named to it. Sure, we could get a new governor who wants to populate the board with political hacks, Wall Street hacks, and others with little experience in or commitment to public higher education, but passing the bill would put pressure on future governors to put people in place who are willing and able to live up to their responsibilities. In fact, I'd love to see the bill revised to depoliticize BOT appointments as much as possible, say by appointing a panel of recognized national experts to advise the governor and the state senate on BOT appointments. But whether or not we get this, it's worth emphasizing the BOT has to follow the state-mandated criteria laid out in lines 20-24 of the bill when judging all special tuition requests.

(c) The SUNY administration has already drafted a comprehensive tuition policy that further limits its authority. I quoted from the section laying out the policy's purpose a few days ago, but there's much more on structures and criteria in it, as well. Let's focus on structural constraints here. The policy creates a working group on comprehensive tuition policy, co-chaired by the heads of the academic and budget arms of SUNY System Administration, whose "membership shall include appropriate representation from all SUNY sectors, including system administration, the Executive Committee/Chancellor's Cabinet, as well as faculty and student representation" (3). Furthermore, the SUNY budget office is charged with developing implementation procedures "in cooperation with the Community College Business Officers' Association (CCBOA), the State University Business Officers' Association (SUBOA), the State University of New York College Admissions Professionals (SUNYCAP), and the State University of New York Financial Aid Professionals (SUNYFAP, Inc.)" (3). Thus, there are plenty of channels for campuses, organizations, and constituencies within SUNY to influence the formation and implementation of tuition policy from year to year, should the bill become law.

(d) The bill requires semi-annual reporting from SUNY to the senate finance committee, assembly ways and means committee, and the director of the budget of all state allocations, non-state revenues, expenditures, programs and activities funded via differential tuition, and enrollments--in total and by campus. Not quite a "When the cat's away, the mice will play" situation. If any on the state side smell something fishy, they can pounce.

In short, "the SUNY administration" has built in plenty of checks and balances, with a wide range of organizations brought in to take over the roles currently played by the state legislature. State roles are redefined, not eliminated; after tracking how well SUNY is handling its new responsibilities, the state can always propose new changes to the education and other laws governing SUNY.

ASSUMPTION 2: The PHEE&IA grants unlimited authority to the SUNY administration to raise tuition... Nothing in the bill or in the comprehensive tuition policy draft prevents SUNY from deciding to keep tuition levels the same from one year to the next--or even lower them in a given year. While the focus is on the means of deciding whether and how much tuition ought to increase, tuition increases are not required. Thus, if the state decides to maintain or even increase its investments in SUNY, we ought to see very low to no tuition increases, or even tuition decreases.

ASSUMPTION 3: The PHEE&IA grants unlimited authority to the SUNY administration to raise tuition to any level it pleases. This is a reference to the gap in the cap created by the insertion of "other than pursuant to clause (i) of this subparagraph," which exempts differential tuition from the HEPI-multiplier cap the bill otherwise establishes. More on that in a second, but let's first address the implication that "the SUNY administration" can raise tuition on what amounts to a whim. Here are those criteria from the comprehensive tuition policy that I alluded to earlier:

  • Information on whether or not the state intends to provide increased funding to cover increased cost associated with as growth in mandatory expenses and the recent history of state funding of mandatory expenses.
  • HEPI for the current year in which a GTR [General Tuition Rate] or STR [Special Tuition Rate] is being considered to help determine the minimum tuition increase that would cover inflation experienced by the system.
  • Any additional system-wide mandates[,] such as federal compliance requirements, not covered by HEPI.
  • State and national economic indicators such as the growth or decline in unemployment rates, growth or decline in the housing market, and other standard indicators of economic health.
  • The availability of all sources of need[-]based student financial aid.
  • Trends/data concerning campus philanthropic efforts in support of student financial aid.
  • Maintaining affordable access to SUNY by current and future students, including but not limited to low and middle income students.
  • In no case, shall the average GTR plus STR rate increase exceed a total tuition ceiling of __% in any given academic year in the event the state provides increased funding to cover increased cost[s] associated with a growth in mandatory expenses, and __% in the event the [s]tate does not provide such increased funding.
  • With regard to an STR proposal, the extent to which GTR does or does not cover the costs associated with the specific opportunity for growth or improvement.
  • Market conditions and the extent to which such conditions would or would not support an increase in either the GTR or a specific STR proposal.
  • Other factors that would support fair, equitable and responsible comprehensive tuition policy. (3-4)
These criteria would have to be followed at every level, from the campuses to system administration, to the Chancellor, to the BOT. Moreover, even though the bill provides a great amount of flexibility to SUNY to adjust tuition by program as well as by campus, the definitions of GTR and STR limit that flexibility in serious ways:

a. General Tuition Rate (GTR): The base rate of tuition payable by all undergraduate, graduate, resident, and non-resident students attending a SUNY institution.

b. Special Tuition Rate (STR): An additional tuition charge payable by all students at a particular SUNY institution, the purpose of which is to invest in a unique opportunity for growth or improvement, the cost of which is not covered by the GTR.

Rather than raising tuition more on a relatively small number of students (relative to the total enrollment at a given campus), which the bill permits, the SUNY policy proposes spreading the costs of particular investments in growth or improvement across the entire student body.

However, there are some tricky details that need working out. Although the gap in the 2.5-times-HEPI cap appears to be eliminated by the policy, take a closer look at the language: "the average GTR plus STR rate increase" shall not increase beyond a fixed percentage rate cap (still to be determined). Right now, it's left implicit that the policy has to conform to the provisions of the bill. It should be made explicit that GTR increases are limited by the "2.5-times-HEPI" rule. Two examples will show why.

Let's say the HEPI is low in a given year, like 1% (for the sake of easy math). In that case, the bill caps any GTR increase at 2.5%. But since undergraduate resident, undergraduate non-resident, graduate resident, and graduate non-resident rates are already different, and the policy permits different increases for these different categories of students, in practice we're likely to see increases in undergraduate resident tuition lag behind other increases. So the "average GTR increase" is likely to end up being lower than the 2.5-times-HEPI cap. (For example, if SUNY wants to be competitive on pricing relative to the state-wide competition for undergraduate resident tuition, they could limit an increase in that category to .5% while going the full 2.5% on the other three categories, thus resulting in an average GTR increase of 2%.)

By the same token, the fixed total percentage rate increase would quickly become a more restrictive cap than 2.5-times-HEPI one once the HEPI goes above 3% or so. The closer HEPI approaches that cap, the less likely any STR proposals will be made, much less approved. And once HEPI exceeds it, the average GTR would have to decrease for any STR to be possible.

SUNY should explicitly guarantee that they won't exceed the "2.5-times-HEPI" cap when setting the GTR. Otherwise they open themselves to the critique that they're sneaking in a gap in the cap via the general tuition rate, even as they're limiting the degree to which a campus can seek to exploit the gap in the cap via special tuition rate proposals. Even more urgent is the need for SUNY to advocate for amendments to the bill itself to bring it more in line with what they actually want with regard to tuition policy. In short, they need to eliminate any possibility of whims influencing the setting of tuition. To make a good-faith effort to address concerns raised by Wittner (and UUP, PSC-CUNY, and NYSUT), they need to attempt to modify the bill, not just develop, revise, and gain approval for their recommendation on BOT policy.

ASSUMPTION #4: The PHEE&IA would allow SUNY to rapidly raise tuition to rates equivalent to the most expensive private colleges and universities in the world. Note how Wittner skillfully allows his readers to make this assumption for themselves:

what would the effect of this legislation be upon students? For hundreds of thousands, it would put a college education beyond reach. Currently, yearly undergraduate tuition at private colleges in New York State and elsewhere is running in the $38,000 to $41,000 range. At SUNY, undergraduates are paying $4,970 a year in tuition. Most of them cannot afford an increase to the private school rate, especially when one considers that another $14,000 or so must be added to the annual bill at a private or public college to cover room, board, and fees. How many families can afford paying over $200,000 to send each of their children to a four-year college? And how many, after that, can afford to send their children on to graduate or professional school?

What Wittner leaves unsaid in this paragraph is that no public system in the 45 states that have similar tuition policies as proposed by the PHEE&IA have raised tuition this fast or this high. The legitimate question of how much students and families should be asked to contribute toward supporting an education, that, on average, helps college graduates earn over the course of their working lives something on the order of $1M more than high school graduates is passed over completely. As is the equally legitimate question of what returns the state and its citizens and taxpayers get from their investments in public higher education. Instead, we get the bald assertion that "hundreds of thousands" would be denied access to higher education if the PHEE&IA becomes law. Over what time frame are we talking here? Is there nothing that can be done to preserve access to SUNY?

Of course there is. Yet not only does Wittner fail to acknowledge that SUNY proposes setting up a financial aid system specifically to preserve access for at-risk students, but also that New York state remains free to focus its efforts on supporting campus and system infrastructures (including personnel costs) and expanding its own student financial aid efforts, thereby making tuition increases unnecessary (or at least helping to minimize them). This leads to his next huge assumption.

ASSUMPTION #5: The state's goal is to reduce operating budget support for SUNY as low as politically feasible, with the ultimate aim of zeroing it out. If so, wouldn't the state be putting its weight behind creating and funding a SUNY-wide endowment, of such size as to allow interest and investment returns to replace lost state support? At SUNY's current size and configuration, we're talking a $20B endowment that would devote 5% to SUNY operations each year. It would have to be about $100B to allow SUNY to be completely self-supporting. We're not talking chump change here. It's going to take a long time for SUNY to raise that kind of money on its own.

Of course, it's possible that the state's agenda is to force SUNY into layoffs, retrenchments, and the selling, closing, and merging of campuses, so that the cost of and timeframe for privatization are minimized. That's why it's so important for all who care about SUNY's future to publicly confront their state legislators with tough questions about their intentions and plans for SUNY. Just how much educational capacity are they out to destroy in New York state? Just how much slack do they expect students and families to pick up?

If this assumption turns out to be even partially true, it's obvious that we have a much bigger problem than the PHEE&IA on our hands. It's not that the bill "allows" or "enables" the state to walk away from public higher education; if that's the state's intention, it will act on it until the citizens it's supposed to represent stand up and stop them--or replace the current representatives who support this agenda. More on this point in my conclusion.

ASSUMPTION #6: The other provisions of the PHEE&IA that streamline and depoliticize the process for evaluating public/private partnerships, land leases, and other potential revenue streams are so ripe for mismanagement, misuse, and mission erosion that they'll end up decreasing rather than increasing SUNY revenues. It's almost as if Wittner is so convinced that SUNY can't learn from other systems' mistakes or help campuses adjust best practices to our own local conditions--that failure, abuse, and corruption are inevitable results of the bill's shifting and redefining oversight responsibilities rather than the responsibilities of campuses and the system to avoid--that he'd rather keep the same oversight system that he claims has authorized ventures that "have resulted in multi-million dollar losses" than even consider a change.

To his credit, Wittner does begin to approach the key questions raised by the debate over the PHEE&IA toward the end of his essay: what should public higher education be and do, whom should it serve, and how should it be structured and financed in the twenty-first century? But he focuses so narrowly on alternate mechanisms for funding SUNY that he short-circuits careful consideration of them:

Of course, there is an alternative--and better--means of funding public higher education. And that is to pay for it through a revised tax structure. Over the past three decades, in an attempt to create a "business-friendly" environment, taxes on New Yorkers with the highest incomes were cut from over 15 percent to less than half that rate. Why not restore some progressivity to the tax structure? According to the highly-respected Fiscal Policy Institute, raising taxes by only 1 percent on New York's millionaires would yield $1 billion or more in state revenues.

Another way to fund public higher education lies in collecting the sales tax that already exists on stock transfers. Currently, New York State rebates the entire sales tax to Wall Street firms. Reducing that rebate from 100 percent to 80 percent would yield about $3.2 billion a year in state revenue. Given the fact that, in 2009, Wall Street profits were $58 billion--three times the previous posted record--paying a small portion of the sales tax on stock transfers should not be an onerous burden.

Left unsaid is the fact that these two reforms wouldn't even come close to closing the current state budget deficit facing New York, much less the much higher projected ones for later academic years. Just how much of these revenues could SUNY legitimately expect to see in the near- and medium-term?

In the end, then, I remain unconvinced by Wittner's claim that "the Empowerment and Innovation Act would concentrate income at some more powerful, appealing SUNY colleges, while leaving other campuses to wither and die." SUNY's tuition policy seems carefully crafted to ensure that all campuses have their basic needs covered by a combination of state allocations and the GTR, while campuses that make powerful appeals with broad support from on-campus and local constituencies--on STR to the BOT and on other non-state revenues to the state asset maximization review board--and follow through on them with smart execution of their strategies will be able to invest in their mission to provide high academic and educational quality at affordable prices. Even if some universities and colleges do better than others in the system at handling the responsibilities and taking advantage of the opportunities that the PHEE&IA offers them, I don't see the harms Wittner envisions as plausible risks. More to the point, the budget typhoon heading New York's way in 2011-2012 is no conjurer's trick.  I still haven't heard a convincing argument why we shouldn't be doing everything in our power to improve the PHEE&IA, to address legitimate objections, and to get an insurance policy in place in case reality turns out to be worse than projected. To head off that eventuality, we'd be much better off developing arguments convincing to everyday New Yorkers for growing SUNY than in pretending that killing the PHEE&IA would stop or even slow the momentum toward dismantling SUNY generated by New York governors and legislatures over the course of decades. How to reverse this inertia is the primary political problem facing everyone who wants to see New York's state university reach its 100th anniversary as a public higher education system.

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