Barely six months into their tenures as heads of their respective institutions, Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley and State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher are on the verge of initiating the biggest fundamental shift in the way Stony Brook, and indeed all of SUNY, operates.
The change revolves around the so-called Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, an initiative that would end, or at least greatly reduce, the strict oversight by the state on tuition costs at each of the 64 campuses that compose SUNY.
If the plan is enacted, it would allow the SUNY Board of Trustees to set varying tuition rates at each campus, rather than one blanket rate. That new freedom will translate immediately to tuition hikes for all SUNY campuses.
The plan calls for a 6%-7% increase in tuition annually for the next 10 years across the board, with certain campuses potentially receiving even greater increases. At minimum, those increases would nearly double the current tuition rates by 2020. Supporters of the plan argue that the additional revenueÃ¢â‚¬â€which, unlike previous tuition increases, would remain mostly at individual campusesÃ¢â‚¬â€will help schools like Stony Brook hire more and better faculty, improve infrastructure, and boost the overall quality of education.
But those potential benefits are not enough to offset mounting anger over the plan. The increase, some argue, will inevitably make SUNY unaffordable to low-income families.
President Stanley addressed those concerns, saying that SUNY ran a series of models based on the proposed increases and are committed to ensuring that lower-income families are not shut out of SUNY.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We plan on allocating 25 to 30 percent of the tuition increases for scholarships,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We would cover the gap between TAP and our costs.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Still, doubt remains over whether those scholarships will be enough to maintain the current demographics of the university. And while low-income students would benefit from these scholarships, middle-class families would ultimately be asked to pay significantly more without the benefit of scholarships.
But President Stanley stands firmly behind the plan.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It will do a great deal to improve the quality of educationÃ¢â‚¬Â he said.
Stanley and SUNY Chanceller Zimpher have also made it a point to emphasize the Ã¢â‚¬Å“predictabilityÃ¢â‚¬Â of these increases as a benefit. Past tuition increases have been delivered suddenly and met considerable anger, and that is not fair to students and their families, says Stanley.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It breaks a compact with our students,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Instead, these increases will be announced right up front, so families can know what to expect every time the bill arrives.
Another potential variable is a proposal made by former SUNY Chancellor Robert King, who suggested that incoming freshmen be guaranteed the same tuition rates for their four years in SUNY as they paid their freshman year. In other words, even if tuition were to increase during their time there, those students would not have to pay the increased rate.
That is not currently a part of the proposal, but President Stanley is open to the idea.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like to take a look at that,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
SUNY spokesman David Henahan also added that the current proposal would effectively eliminate the fickleness that SUNY has dealt with in the past.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This would take tuition costs out of the political arena,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Henahan. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It would remove a lot of red tape.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Currently, the SUNY board of trustees is restricted by the state of New York on what they can charge for tuition, and the cost is maintained across the state. Students at SUNY Fredonia, a smaller college in upstate New York with 3,500 undergraduate students, pay the same tuition as students at Stony Brook University, a school with almost five times as many students and many more associated costs.
The proposal, if approved, would likely create a tiered system much like the public education system in Pennsylvania. There, students who attend a Ã¢â‚¬Å“flagshipÃ¢â‚¬Â campusÃ¢â‚¬â€Penn StateÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s University Park campus in this exampleÃ¢â‚¬â€pay more than students who attend smaller state colleges.
Opponents of the plan are furious that SUNY and Stony Brook would even consider the proposal, which would significantly increase tuition costs.