Schools of Thought

My View: A model for addressing college costs

By Nancy L. Zimpher, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Nancy L. Zimpher is the Chancellor of the State University of New York, the nation’s largest comprehensive system of higher education.

College costs are exploding. Last fall, U.S.public four-year colleges increased tuition by more than 7%. Combined with severe cuts in state funding, university systems are scrambling to get a hold of skyrocketing costs. Worse, more than half of students earning bachelor’s degrees at public colleges – 56 percent – are graduating with $22,000 of debt, on average.

The sharpest tuition increase – 21 percent – took place last fall atCalifornia’s public colleges and universities, where one in 10 of the country’s four-year public college students are enrolled. Arizona and Washington fell in just behind the Golden State, increasing tuition by 17% and 16%, respectively.

This year, an especially bleak financial outlook in Pennsylvania has spurred talk of privatizing public universities.

This full-blown crisis in higher education is being felt by students in virtually every state inAmerica, except for ours in  New York. Here, we’ve solved our revenue problems and kept tuition in check by implementing a five-year rational tuition policy and earning a commitment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to be held immune from state budget cuts. Not bad for world-class colleges and universities located in one of the most expensive areas of the country.

Don't get me wrong, State University of New York students will see tuition go up. But unlike other states, where students can get hit with sharp tuition increases without warning, there will be no surprises in New York. We have given our students the benefit of knowing how much tuition will increase year to year, for the duration of their time on campus. And we’ve told them this even before they apply. Importantly, our plan also maintains access for New York's neediest students by dedicating the first 25% of new revenue for those receiving the maximum state aid. And 40% of our students are graduating without carrying any loan debt.

This policy can work for any public institution, and that’s why other states should embrace our model. It's the best working example today of a responsible policy that addresses President Barack Obama's call for affordability in public higher education.

But solving the budget crisis in public higher education must go beyond the standard solutions of state funding and tuition hikes. All too often, administrators see it as an "either-or" decision. Our nation’s economic crisis demands that we find new and innovative ways to manage our public institutions. The status quo is no longer an option.

When you have a large public university system – SUNY has a 64-campus umbrella – opportunities can be identified to cut costs and increase efficiency, and those savings can be redirected to expanding access and enhancing services that directly benefit students. For instance, there are significant cost savings that can be realized by consolidating information technology or human resources services, and those funds can enable universities to hire more full-time faculty, offer more courses, or expand advisement services to ensure on-time degree completion. Regional centers can centrally process payroll, purchasing, and other administrative tasks instead of duplicating these services at one or more campuses.

We're taking this notion to scale at SUNY, and in doing so over the next three years, each of our campuses will shift - at minimum – 5% of its administrative spending to student services. That's at least $100 million of money we already have that will simply be invested in a smarter, more efficient manner every year.

This is a comprehensive approach that requires a commitment from state officials to at least maintain public investment in public higher education, from campus administrators to identify and root out wasteful practices, and from students to pay modest increases in tuition. As public colleges and universities and federal and state legislative leaders continue to navigate today's economic crisis, SUNY andNew York State are proud to offer some very realistic, very viable solutions.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nancy L. Zimpher.