Deregulation Comes to Public Higher Education

NYSUT Photo by STEVE JACOBS , 3/9/10, Albany,NY--  ACTION DAY --  SUNY and CUNY students along with legislatures gather to urge the Governor to not make education cuts and changes as they gather at a downtown Albany restaurant, Tuesday, March 9,2010.

NYSUT Photo by STEVE JACOBS , 3/9/10, Albany,NY– ACTION DAY — SUNY and CUNY students along with legislatures gather to urge the Governor to not make education cuts and changes as they gather at a downtown Albany restaurant, Tuesday, March 9,2010.

At the moment of this writing, New York Governor David Paterson is playing a game of political chicken with the state legislature.  Paterson (a Democrat) is counting on the state senate to pass a budget that effectively deregulates tuition at the state and city universities, SUNY and CUNY.  At the CUNY campus where I teach, the cost of each year of college for full-time students who are residents of New York State is $5,050 ($4,600 tuition + $550 in fees).  It’s not much by today’s standards, but it’s not nothing either…which is exactly what CUNY used to cost.  Should Paterson have his way, my students could pay twice that in ten years.  Again, not a fortune compared with the privates but, again, not nothing.  But the privatization of the public universities isn’t really about how closely their tuitions approximate the privates.  This is just one component of a more fundamental effort to shift the funding from a public to a private basis, from taxpayer money to the tuition payments of working-class students who can’t afford to attend the privates.

Smoke and mirrors rhetorically disguise this shift.  We’re told that under the current proposal, tuition would be liberated from the oversight of lawmakers.  But in case we wonder what then would prevent administrators at deregulated campuses from ratcheting tuition up by fiat, we are assured that something known as the “Higher Education Price Index” will set the increments by which tuition is raised.  According to the New York Times,* however, not only does this Index “typically” increase faster than the rate of inflation, certain “elite” publics (SUNY Stony Brook and Hunter College are named) will be exempt from the Index’s regulation. Smoke that!  The alert Times reporter notes that this would “in effect creat[e] a two-tiered system,” and I wonder whether two is a high enough estimate.

Then we have the mirrors.  “Administration officials believe that the proposal […] would give the state’s research institutions the resources they need to compete against other top-tier public universities.”  Let’s see if I have this straight:

New York: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the fairest public university of them all?”

Mirror: “I cannot tell a lie.  You are fair and possessed of some sparkling research institutions, but Michigan and California far surpass you.  In fact, if I may speak frankly, so do several others.”

New York: “Damned mirror.  I’ll… I’ll… I’ll raise tuition!”

Mirror: “With all due respect, your legislators won’t be able to sell that one back home with their constituents.  What about putting your money where your vanity is and increasing your state’s investment in the public colleges?”

New York: “Ha!  Step into the twenty-first century, mirror.  I’ve got it – we won’t call it a tuition increase, we’ll call it tuition deregulation!”

Mirror: “Nicely done.  Soon California and Michigan will be coming to you for makeover advice.”

And so goes smoke-and-mirrors campaign.

*New York Times, 23 June 2010, p A22.

–James Davis

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