Unfortunately this is a story that is repeating itself over and over again over the entire country as the economy suffers. State and local officials grappling with tough decisions about which worthwhile and valuable services to cut, to avoid crippling budget deficits and states and municipalities going bankrupt. The only problem is, in this case that this campus closure is not forced by a crumbling economy, but by extremely poor government policy in Albany.
The State University of New York (SUNY) is one of a very few institutions of higher learning in the United States to have their tuition set not by the University Trustees or Administrators but rather by a legislative body. Traditionally every 5 or so years when the state legislature bothers to think about it, lawmakers review tuition and vote to increase it as a function of inflation or other economic pressures. This occurred last year during the academic year, the legislature voted to increase tuition midway through the year. This caused students who had budgeted for tuition some duress – but this was not the real crime of the bill. Instead the real crime of the bill was that the increase in tuition did NOT go to the SUNY system, but instead went to the state’s general fund. Students were not paying for education, they were paying to cover other expenses the state had incurred.
Let me say this again. The legislature increased tuition to pay for other programs. The legislature taxed students to pay for their pork. Why? Because lawmakers are terrified to increase taxes to pay for the programs they fund. Instead they increase fees at state agencies (e.g. vehicle registration, recreational fishing permits) and pocket the money to pay for other projects. Brilliant!
So SUNY came up with a plan that they hope to convince lawmakers and the governor of. Allow SUNY trustees to set tuition and keep the tuition inside of SUNY for distribution. Some campuses could have a higher tuition, and some campuses could have a lower tuition based on what services they provide and the level of education granted. What do lawmakers like State Assemblyman Fred Thiele think of this plan?
The second problem is that the campus is caught in what Thiele called “Albany politics.”
The state university system, he said, wants to offer different tuition rates at different schools, and it wants to set those rates without any oversight.
“The legislature is leery of that,” said Thiele.
Of course the legislature is leery of that! How else will they continue to pass along their increased spending to taxpayers without actually doing the politically unpopular, but responsible action of raising taxes. Responsibility, that is something the legislature is truly leery of. Instead they just pass the expense onto college students.
The closure of Southampton Campus is expected to save Stony Brook $6 million annually. If SUNY had been able to use the funds generated by increasing tuition, would this closure be necessary? Enrollment at Southampton is up – way up – perhaps with the funds from the tuition increase the State could have kept Southampton open long enough to build up a program that could break even. Instead $55 million that has been spent improving the campus is going to waste.
So Fred Thiele, instead of blaming others, take action. Vote to keep all tuition money paid by students in the SUNY system. Then vote to make sure in the future lawmakers can’t steal from the SUNY cookie jar again, allow trustees to set tuition levels. Lastly, take responsibility to the fact that it is policy enacted under your watch that caused Southampton to be closed. Don’t pass the buck.