Public education losing its affordability

Submitted photo University officials are hoping for a picture-perfect day on Saturday when the Class of 2018 celebrates commencement.

State University of New York at Fredonia President Virginia Horvath remembers when a higher education at a public institution was affordable for just about everyone. When she was student at the State University at Buffalo, the tuition was $300 a semester.

Horvath was quick to note in her presentation at the League of Women Voters annual dinner at the Clarion Hotel Marina & Conference Center in Dunkirk earlier this week that those were the good old days.

Today, a semester’s tuition at a SUNY school is more than 10 times that amount — and that does not even include living quarters or meals. In all, a student will likely pay more than $20,000 a year to attend a learning institution that also receives a portion of funding from the state.

Something went wrong over the last 40 years. It’s not just here where a SUNY education is still one of the best. It is across our nation.

This weekend, more than 1,000 students at our proud university will celebrate the end of a journey at commencement. They will then take a new step — possibly at another degree — or head to the work force, which appears to be strong at the moment.

But sticker shock awaits many in terms of paying back loans for that education. Oftentimes, it takes anywhere from 18 to 25 years for an individual to make good on those payments that can mirror a monthly payment on a new car.

As numerous soon-to-be graduates face debt before entering the job market, SUNY Fredonia also has some financial concerns. At the last College Council meeting earlier this month, Horvath discussed the institution was eyeing a $12 million deficit for 2018-19.

Though it seems like doom and gloom, there was a silver lining. Fredonia has sustained despite the lack of increasing state support.

That’s the good news, but public higher education remains under a silent financial attack from policymakers. “Our base allocation (from New York state) at Fredonia has been flat for the last eight years,” Horvath noted.

Working with our state capital is twofold — and challenging. Contracts, for a majority of the staff, are negotiated by Albany for all the state-supported campuses. However, those contractual increases are not covered in the aid that goes to SUNY — and about 85 percent of the more than $58 million operating budget here is for salaries and benefits.

It is quite the opposite from what is happening in our area school districts. Despite the defeat of three school budgets in our region — Gowanda, Ripley and Westfield — state aid increases of 2 percent or 3 percent are a constant.

SUNY campuses, however, have almost been left to almost fend for themselves. Yes, there is aid in the tremendous capital projects that have occurred here in recent years at the Science Center, the Technology Incubator in Dunkirk, Cranston Marche and Reed Library, but the learning operation — the foundation of the college — is what struggles.

“The future is going to depend on what happens with public policy and what the will is of the people to invest in things that may not affect them directly,” Horvath said regarding a possible increase of funding from state and federal coffers. “I’d say that’s true not just of higher education, but of the political climate right now.”

Much of that focus seems targeted at eliminating assistance programs in Washington — or creating programs like the much-publicized Excelsior scholarship on a state level that sounds great, but is a paperwork headache for both the applicant and the university.

Somehow a greater investment in learning — not just buildings — has to come from Albany. That, Horvath believes, would get SUNY back to its roots of providing a top-notch educational environment at an affordable cost for everyone.

“I would not have been able to go to college without public support,” she said. “That’s what I’m still fighting for as I look ahead.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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