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Viewpoint: Don’t Undermine CUNY’s Mission

The following excerpts are adapted from the PSC’s testimony at the joint legislative hearing on the 2015-2016 state budget in Albany on February 10, delivered by PSC President Barbara Bowen. Full text of the testimony, with details on a range of programs and proposals, is online.

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Four years ago, Albany made a promise to the students of CUNY and SUNY....The promise has not been kept. The 2015-2016 Executive Budget proposal repeatedly states that future funding for CUNY and SUNY will be based on the premise that the State’s contribution has provided “stability” in funding. Sadly, that notion is a myth.

The State failed to provide a true maintenance of effort, which would cover mandatory inflationary costs. CUNY calls these annually increasing costs “mandatory needs” or “mandatory costs” because they must be funded to maintain the University’s current level of services and programming. We’re talking about rent hikes, rising energy costs, price increases for office supplies and equipment, fringe benefit cost hikes and contractual salary steps. The Executive Budget would not fund one dime of CUNY’s mandatory cost increases, leaving its senior colleges $63 million short.

By not providing General Fund support for all of CUNY’s mandatory costs, the governor forces CUNY to use tuition revenue to fill the gap. That means CUNY is using its available funds to keep the lights on and is unable to make the investments that students need in additional full-time faculty, counseling and advisement, academic tutoring and student services. Unless the Legislature takes a stand this year, the pattern will continue.

Albany’s Betrayal

Beyond underfunding, the Executive Budget calls for a restructuring of state funding for SUNY and CUNY that fundamentally misunderstands what colleges do and how new knowledge is generated. The financial betrayal of our students and their families is in danger of being compounded by a betrayal even more profound – of their right to a meaningful college education.

For most of the half-million students enrolled in the City University of New York, CUNY is their only chance for an education that can lead to the kind of life we all want for ourselves. Three-quarters of CUNY students are people of color; more than half are from families earning less than $30,000 a year; 40% are immigrants; and 42% of them are working while attending school. They are New York’s strivers and New York’s hope. They are the next generation in the great story of generations of poor and working-class New Yorkers who built this state. They do not deserve to be betrayed by Albany and deprived of the chance for a college education with lasting value.

The Executive Budget proposes a massive restructuring of state funding for CUNY and SUNY that would cheapen the meaning of college education and degrade its quality. The 2016 Budget proposes to hold hostage 10% of the State’s already inadequate funding to “performance measures” that come with no evidence of enhancing education. As currently proposed, the performance measures would skew college curriculum to the short-term needs of employers and rob our students of the skills and knowledge that have been shown to be the best predictors of lasting success. In the absence of increased investment per student by the State, they could create dangerous pressure to cut educational corners for the sake of higher graduation rates, or worse – to compromise CUNY’s historic mission. The result could be less access for students, more pressure for tuition increases, and continuing austerity for CUNY and SUNY.

In contrast, President Obama has called on states to invest more in college education, and legislators on both sides of the aisle in Washington are seeking ways to make college more affordable. When he unveiled his proposal for free community college, President Obama cited CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) Initiative as a model. ASAP has shown that by investing in smaller classes and more support for community college students, graduation rates can be dramatically raised. In the most recent ASAP cohort, 56% graduated from community college within three years – a result that far outpaces national averages. ASAP has been widely praised, and is now being imitated by colleges in Ohio and elsewhere.

Elimination of ASAP

But the 2016 Executive Budget, like the 2015 Executive Budget, would eliminate all state funding for ASAP. Instead of welcoming ASAP as a model, as an example of how to move public higher education forward, the governor’s Executive Budget provides zero state funding for ASAP – a program with real results – and in its place proposes measures that have a bad track record.

We thank the Legislature for restoring ASAP funding last year, and urge that it do so again. But we also ask you to stand up for public higher education in a more fundamental way. The governor’s plan for performance-based funding will lead to less opportunity for New York’s students. It is the wrong direction for public higher education.

Over a 25-year period, state expenditures, when adjusted for inflation and full-time equivalent (FTE) students, are down by one-third for both senior and community colleges. This year, the only significant increase in the Executive Budget for public higher education is associated with the governor’s plan to replace enrollment-driven funding with a performance-based model of funding. The Executive Budget adds insult to injury by proposing this as the new direction for state funding overall.

Higher Tuition, More Student Debt

Consider this: the SUNY 2020 plan recognized that the State had not properly funded CUNY and SUNY for decades and, consequently, had shifted much of the cost of public higher education onto the students – a move that contributes to the student debt crisis. The State then failed to properly implement SUNY 2020 and left students to continue to fill in the funding gaps left by state disinvestment. Now, the Executive Budget proposes that 10% of state funding, already acknowledged to be inadequate, be held hostage to so-called performance measures, which have demonstrated little success and have the potential to do real harm to the missions of CUNY and SUNY. “Performance measures” are the flavor-of-the-day among conservative policy makers. But they cover over a policy that will heap more financial burden on students and continue the state’s disinvestment in access to public higher education.

Performance-based funding creates an incentive to enroll a student body that will generate the statistics needed to guarantee funding, especially when the statistics privilege graduation above all. In a society in which we are far from equal opportunity, such measures generate pressure to enroll students who are less likely to come from under-resourced New York City schools, who are less likely to be low-income and people of color. They are dangerous for CUNY, an institution founded on the mission of educating “the children of the whole people” – a mission no less groundbreaking now than in 1847. Bad incentives lead to bad results.

The Executive Budget requires CUNY and SUNY to submit Campus Performance Improvement Plans, which would include student outcome measures and would also include:
• “experiential learning” as a graduation requirement;
• a “master researcher” program to pay bonuses to professors who generate commercialization opportunities;
• financial bonuses for public-college presidents who recruit businesses to locate in their tax-free START-UP NY zones.

The experiential learning requirement is a bad idea that risks putting businesses, not students, first. When done right, internships, service learning, and other out-of-class experiences can be of great benefit to students. They can stimulate students’ academic interests and civic engagement, expand their cultural awareness, hone their leadership skills and teach professionalism. CUNY’s commitment to providing such opportunities to students is apparent, and CUNY faculty and staff have the professional expertise to set curriculum and manage programming so that internships are really a learning experience, thoughtfully integrated into the larger curriculum.

Academic Interference

But the governor’s proposal to set a SUNY- and CUNY-wide experiential learning requirement is an unwarranted intrusion into the faculty’s professional purview, and is likely to lead to bad results. Internships should exist for the benefit of the intern; if they are managed poorly they can end up being just a source of free or cheap labor for employers. (Federal courts are currently deciding challenges to the legality of such arrangements.) A statewide mandate for every student to take part in experiential learning even if it is not pedagogically appropriate or when the resources are not available to manage it properly, is a one-size-fits-all approach that encourages corner-cutting. It is an unwise move that can lead to a wasted experience or, worse, an exploitative situation.

The master researcher bonus proposal fundamentally misunderstands how new knowledge is created and commercialized and the real conditions at New York’s public universities. Research discoveries, commercial applications, and new knowledge depend on long-term infrastructural investments in physical plant and human capacity. The real impediments to individual CUNY faculty engaging in research are a lack of institutional resources and high teaching loads. For example, most community college faculty do not have their own laboratories and must go to other institutions to use colleagues’ labs. CUNY senior college and community college faculty have crushing teaching loads with overflowing classes and little time left over for engaging in research. What faculty need is more time and resources to do research, not a $20,000 bonus.

START-UP NY creates tax breaks that diminish much-needed state revenues that could be going to public education. The Campus Performance Improvement Plans required by the Executive Budget include financial bonuses for college presidents who demonstrate commercial success through START-UP NY programs at their campuses. CUNY’s college presidents should be focused on the mission of CUNY: to provide the best quality college education to “the whole people of New York.” Such bonuses create unacceptable incentives for public-college presidents to give their core responsibilities and instead line their own pockets by becoming boosters for the governor’s tax giveaway.

A New Direction for Higher Education

The Legislature should reject the governor’s plan to shift state funding for CUNY senior and community colleges toward an ill-conceived performance-based model and oppose the other requirements of his Campus Performance Improvement Plans.

The PSC asks legislators to redeem Albany’s promise to the students and families of this state, and to work with us to set a new direction for New York’s higher education. The timing is right: President Obama has opened up a discussion on the future of higher education by calling for free community college. College education has not been as prominent in the national conversation since the creation of the G.I. Bill.

The White House cites CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associates Programs as a shining example of how to increase retention and graduation rates. ASAP invests more, not less, in student success. Money for smaller classes, more focused advisement, free books and free tuition have all been key to its success.

New York should engage this idea and remember that the promise of the 1847 Free Academy still remains to be fulfilled. To engage this idea means to make the needed investments now and in the future, investments that for too long have been deferred. With a $5 billion surplus, New York State is in a sound fiscal position to start changing course.

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