Lowering higher education in New York

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
February 28, 2003, Friday, Late Edition - Final

Gov. George Pataki and New York State's Legislature are again playing the same, tired game with higher education funding. The governor requests cuts aimed primarily at low-income families. The Legislature pledges to fend off the worst of the cuts, and does so in the customary backroom settlement. The pantomime resumes with each new budget.

This endless state of emergency has precluded anything that resembles a serious discussion of whether a sprawling public university system built during the fat and sassy 60's needs to be reshaped. Does New York need 64 far-flung state university campuses? Should tuition be means-tested, to capture more revenue from the growing number of affluent students? Do some campuses needlessly duplicate others? The Legislature is unlikely to take up sensitive questions like these soon. Lawmakers view the campuses primarily as jobs programs, and nobody wants to mess with the goose that lays the golden eggs. In the absence of long-term planning, the public university system stumbles from crisis to crisis.

Mr. Pataki's education budget this year includes a lethal combination of tuition hikes, base-line operating cuts and reductions in direct state aid to the poorest students. Given the reaction the last time the state imposed a sizable tuition hike, it seems likely that an increase of 35 percent could drive many students out of the system. Many others, especially part-timers who receive minimal state aid, might never apply at all. If a tuition increase is needed, it should come as a last resort. The state should also plan better to avoid large, sudden increases.

Whatever the Legislature decides to do about tuition, it has an obligation to protect the core of the Tuition Assistance Program for full-time students. TAP is aimed primarily at low- and middle-income students, and Mr. Pataki wants to defer spending money on them by withholding a third of the aid until after the students graduate. That allows the state to put off spending until the future, but requires already straitened families to take on more debt to get their children through school. If Mr. Pataki wanted to control the cost of TAP, he could propose eliminating aid at the high-income level, where students whose families have income of as much as $95,000 can receive small amounts of aid.

That kind of thinking, which puts prioritizing and planning ahead of politics, is foreign to Albany. But a conversation about what kind of public university system New York actually wants -- and what kind of system it can afford -- is long overdue.