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New York State Community College Budget Update

At the most recent meeting of the Academic Senate, Chair Anissa Moore, President Keen, NCCFT President Frank Frisenda, and others engaged in discussion about a proposed new funding model for SUNY community colleges, which SUNY has dubbed the “Hybrid Model,” and which would be, if adopted, a marked improvement over the way community colleges are funded now. As part of this discussion, a resolution was put forward urging the Senate to take action by writing a letter to the governor’s office in support of the this model. Further discussion followed, during which President Frisenda urged the Senate to table that resolution, pointing out that the outcome of ongoing talks between SUNY and NYSUT might have an impact on what the content of the letter ought to be. The resolution passed, nonetheless, with Chair Moore noting that the Senate would wait to write its letter until the NCCFT reported on the results of those talks. Now that the talks have concluded, this post contains the substance of our report.

Current New York State Education Law stipulates that responsibility for funding SUNY community colleges is shared evenly among New York State, the local sponsor (in our case, Nassau County), and student tuition, with each share making up one third of the total. In the case of open access community colleges, like Nassau Community College, the State’s share is supposed to be even larger, totaling 40%. Unfortunately, as we well know, State legislators have failed to fulfill their fiscal responsibility to institutions like ours every year since the law was passed. They do this by including a “wiggle word” in the language of the budget they adopt every year, allowing them to circumvent education law, while making it perfectly legal for them to shortchange New York State’s community college students. That word is notwithstanding.

Here’s how it works. Each year, once our legislators have agreed on SUNY’s community college budget, one that they know full well falls short of the legally required amount, they simply include the word notwithstanding in the language of the budget legislation. So, for example, notwithstanding what state law requires, Albany currently gives us $2,872/Full-Time-Equivalent (FTE), which adds up to around 22% of our budget. (One FTE equals 12 credits of enrollment, after the census date.) Nassau County, through a discrete line in its property tax bill,gives approximately $52 million, which adds up to about 26%. We also make money from chargebacks, rental fees, accrued interest, and other similar sources, which, when combined with the two figures cited above, brings the total of our non-tuition funding to around 50%. That means the rest of our budget—the largest single source of funding we have available to us—also more or less 50%, comes from student tuition and fees.

To put that slightly differently, the only reason we are able to weather the government’s chronic underfunding of public higher education in general, and of community colleges in particular is by raising tuition, a situation that becomes even more dire when a decrease in enrollment/retention leads to a drop in FTE funding. The need to address this intolerable situation is perhaps the strongest message we bring to Albany for NYSUT’s Higher Ed Lobby Day every year, but that message inevitably gets watered down, if not lost entirely, within the reality of how the State’s higher education budget is put together. 

Currently, for example, there are three “one house” funding bills on table up in Albany—“one house” meaning that each bill was written within its own silo, without even the pretense of outside consultation:

  • The State Assembly’s bill, with a $100/FTE increase
  • The State Senate’s bill, with a $50/FTE increase
  • The Governor’s bill, with no increase

Each of these bills falls woefully short of what adequate community college funding should look like. Even the Assembly’s $100/FTE increase would have dire consequences for Nassau Community College. More to the point, though, given that there is no way to predict the outcome of the lobbying, negotiating, and horse trading that are part and parcel of the budget process, we cannot use any of these proposed bills as a basis for even the most contingent future planning.

This lack of predictability is part of what SUNY’s Hybrid Model is intended to address. By combining a stable and “predictable base level,” or “floor,” of State funding for each campus with an FTE increase of $125 (from $2,847 to $2,972), SUNY hopes the Hybrid Model will at least begin to address the inequities of the current funding system. Unfortunately, SUNY initially developed this model in its own silo, without consulting the Governor’s Office or either of the two legislative bodies. As a result, not only is the Hybrid Model not accounted for in any of the three bills mentioned above, meaning that there is no direct way to support it through the legislative process; there has not been until now legislative language through which the model could even be introduced.

That legislative language is the result of the talks between SUNY and NYSUT that President Frisenda referred to at the Academic Senate. What makes this language significant is this: Once it is adopted—and there is a long road ahead of us before we get to that point—it writes the Hybrid Model into education law in a way that eliminates the “wiggle-word” option legislators have been using for all these years. In other words, notwithstanding the degree to which they might like to continue underfunding community colleges, if the NYSUT/SUNY language is adopted, they will be unable to do so without explicitly violating the law.

As we suggested above, turning the SUNY/NYSUT Hybrid-Model language into law is a long-term project. We recognize the impulse to support this project now, but, in the absence of a coherent strategy for doing so, we fear that any action on its behalf will inevitably reduce itself to an empty gesture, with potentially unintended consequences. Our immediate task is to ensure that community colleges receive as much of an FTE increase in next year’s budget as possible, and that means convincing the Senate at least to match the Assembly’s figure of $100/FTE. This is where NYSUT is asking us to direct our energies now and they have provided sample language you can use to contact your Senator. If you don’t know who your Senator is, you can find out here. You can download NYSUT’s sample language here

We urge you to follow NYSUT’s lead and take this action as soon as possible.

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