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With Cuomo's backing, SUNY sets new course

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs into law NYSUNY 2020 legislation that creates a challenge grant program for the state’s four university centers and also implements a rational tuition plan that affects all SUNY and CUNY campuses over the next five years. Photo by John David Iseman.
August 15, 2011
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the NYSUNY 2020 bill last week, implementing a challenge grant program that will divide $140 million among the four university centers and allow all public colleges to raise tuition up to 5 percent per year for the next five years, without approval from the Legislature.

"(This legislation) really moves SUNY in a new direction and does it dramatically," said Cuomo.

NYSUNY 2020 (A.8519/S.5855) authorizes $35 million per school from the Empire State Development Corp. for the four university centers — Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook — coupled with $15 million per school from the State University of New York's construction fund. To qualify, each school must submit plans for academic and economic development. The total NYSUNY 2020 funding is $140 million.

"This is the first stride towards making SUNY the economic engine that it can be and should be for this state," said Cuomo. "SUNY is poised to be a great economic engine, and we're starting with the four university centers."

NYSUNY 2020 will help the state's pubic higher education program become a catalyst for affordable, economic development at a local level, according to the governor's office.

"For the first time in state history, the university centers of SUNY have an opportunity to seize multiple-year funding to do what they do best — act as catalysts for a stronger, more competitive New York," said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. "We applaud the governor's economic vision and assure all New Yorkers that SUNY is equal to the task."

Zimpher will review the schools' plans and then recommend them to the board of the Empire State Development Corp. for the final say. The plans for individualized development, when implemented, would complement Cuomo's newly created regional economic development councils to rejuvenate local communities. According to SUNY, the approvals will be made by the end of this year.

The opportunities for development allowed by the grant are especially important for the university centers, according to Stony Brook University, which cited in its application a report conducted by the state Comptroller's Office. The report found Long Island and the Binghamton area — home to two of the four campuses — have the slowest growing economies in the state.

All four university center presidents have been vocal in their support of the law.

"Thanks to the leadership and vision of the governor, Chancellor Zimpher and our state Legislature, NYSUNY 2020 will allow the University at Albany to strengthen its academic enterprise, create new jobs, attract new research funding and spur economic revitalization in the Capital Region and across the state of New York," said UAlbany President George M. Phillip.

According to SUNY, the four universities must include the following information in their plans:

- How the school will work with the regional economic development councils to encourage local and regional revitalization.

- Public and private partnerships that will increase academic and economic benefits.

- Endorsement of the plan from local governments.

- Funding mechanisms, such as capital financing, tuition increases and private sector financing.

- Details and reasons for expansion, such as new faculty or property.

"This legislation gives the University at Buffalo the tools to move forward in implementing the next phase of our long-range vision of excellence," said university President, Satish K. Tripathi, "so that University at Buffalo can have an even greater impact and more expansive reach in the communities we serve."

The second element of the new law is the rational tuition program. Rational tuition authorizes all schools in the SUNY and City University of New York systems to increase tuition by 5 percent, about $300, annually over the next five years. The amount of merit-based scholarships will also increase to help students afford the additional tuition.

"Our students will know exactly how much they will need to invest in their education," said SUNY Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost David Lavallee. "They will know what they need to get their degree on time."

The four research institutions can institute an additional 3 percent increase, for an 8 percent total increase.

Prior to NYSUNY 2020, the Legislature was required to approve any tuition increases. Sudden spikes of more than 40 percent followed some periods of no bump in tuition. The average annual SUNY tuition increase has been 6.7 percent over the last 20 years.

"Rational tuition reform is crucial to the expansion of our educational mission," said Binghamton University President C. Peter Magrath. "By delivering substantial resources to the campus, we will be able to improve access to Binghamton's high-quality education for thousands of New Yorkers and help position the university and our partners to reinvigorate the state's economy through innovation and job creation."

The law will maintain affordability for low-income students by establishing tuition credits, which will require SUNY and CUNY to apply a credit against the tuition charged to a student. The amount of this credit will be based on the student's Tuition Assistance Program award.

United University Professions, the union that represents many SUNY academic and professional faculty, is critical of both the challenge grant program and the tuition plan.

"By seeking tuition and fee increases to implement their plans, University at Buffalo and Stony Brook administrators have made it clear that buildings are more important to them than students," said Smith. "These plans would give SUNY a blank check signed by students to hike tuition to expand or construct buildings."

Stony Brook University promised approximately 35 percent of revenue from increased tuition for need-based aid, according to its grant application. Stony Brook and Buffalo have already submitted their challenge grant proposals, and the governor's office is expected to announce its decisions in the coming weeks. According to the governor, his administration has invited Binghamton and Albany to present plans, though neither has yet.

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