John B. King Jr. Credit: United States Department of Education /Public Domain photo

ALBANY — The new leader of the State University of New York told lawmakers Monday “modest” tuition increases proposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul will eventually help the 64 campuses in the system to attract more students following years of enrollment declines.

“Even with the tuition increase that the governor has proposed, our SUNY campuses will be dramatically more affordable than campuses in neighboring states,” Chancellor John King Jr. said at a legislative hearing on Hochul’s budget for higher education.

Hochul’s proposed budget envisions tuition increases of 3% at SUNY and City University campuses. The two systems, though led by separate bureaucracies, are both funded by the state government. Several downstate lawmakers have been complaining the Hochul spending plan shortchanges CUNY, noting SUNY has traditionally received 60% of the state support for public colleges with CUNY getting 40%.

While King avoided wading into the argument of whether Hochul’s plan maintains that balance, he did suggest the tuition hikes proposed for SUNY would not be felt by the system’s most economically disadvantaged students.

With financial aid from the Tuition Assistance Program, state Excelsior scholarships and Pell Grant aid, 53% of SUNY students are paying no tuition now, King noted.

But some lawmakers challenged the rationale for any boost in tuition following several years of enrollment declines at both SUNY and CUNY. SUNY alone has shed 20% of its enrollment over the past dozen years.

“A tuition increase is a tax increase by another name,” Sen. Andrew Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, told King and CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez.

Also taking aim at the tuition increase was Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest, D-Brooklyn, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo. She said a typical student who pays $50,000 for four years of education at the Geneseo campus will graduate with $30,000 in debt. “We expect our students to make investments, of course,” Forrest said. “But how can we put all the burden on them? How does that make sense?”

King said the SUNY system is committed to affordability. “At the same time we have to make sure we have the resources to be competitive, to invest in faculty, to provide services to students like mental health, and that’s what the governor was aiming for with the very modest tuition increase,” the chancellor added.

He suggested the tuition increase would add up to about $200 per year per student. Meanwhile, the annual cost of a SUNY education would remain about $3,000 less than the price charged by “peer” institutions in other states, King said.

Campus administrations, he said, need to have “a reliable, predictable set of expectations around revenue.”

King, who had served as U.S. Secretary of Education under former President Barack Obama, was hired for the $750,000-a-year SUNY post last year by the SUNY trustees following his unsuccessful campaign for governor of Maryland, the state where he remains a resident. CNHI reported in December that Merryl Tisch, chairwoman of the SUNY board, had donated $6,000 to his campaign. The trustees had hired a consulting firm to assist in what they said was a national search for a new chancellor.

SUNY pegged its total enrollment last fall at 363,612 students, including a graduate student enrollment of 44,601 and 159,333 students at community colleges.

Enrollment challenges could become magnified if state leaders impose austerity measures on SUNY, such as cuts in programs or tuition hikes, faculty union leaders argued.

Andrew Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie County Community College, said state financial support for campuses should not be hinged to enrollment statistics.

“I think that’s killing us and we’re dying on the vine,” Sako told lawmakers.

Another union official, James McCartney, representing the State University Police Officers, Investigators and Lieutenants Benevolent Association, urged legislators to again approve legislation that would provide union members with a 20-year retirement benefit, mirroring the pension eligibility threshold that most other police officers receive in New York.

McCartney pointed out that a gunman went on a shooting rampage at Michigan State University last week, killing three students and wounding numerous individuals.

“Sadly, like society as a whole, our state higher education institutions experience violence and firearms related crimes on and near our campuses,” he said.

The bill Hochul has twice vetoed would make university, environmental and park police eligible for pensions after 20 years of service.

Lawmakers are expected to propose amendments to the governor’s fiscal blueprint as part of the negotiations for a new state spending plan.

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