Where’s SUNY?

While public higher education is not perfect, it’s not too hard to make the case that it is absolutely foundational for our shared future. Producing a sufficient number of high-quality healthcare professionals, engineers, teachers, educational leaders, and scientists (for example) who work to provide for a better future depends on public higher education. And making public higher education accessible is critical for truly advancing the American dream. 

As a New Yorker who truly believes in the importance of public higher education, I have to say that I am tired of scrolling down lists of the best colleges and universities in the US only to find no SUNY anywhere near the top. In a recent Times higher education-Wall Street Journal ranking of the best colleges in the US, no SUNY cracks the top 50. In a similar ranking made by Forbes magazine, same deal. It’s like “Where’s SUNY?”

While many elite private colleges and universities famously emerge near the top of such lists, this situation is not because schools in the SUNY system are public as opposed to private. In fact, plenty of states do have state schools on such lists of overall top colleges and universities. On the Times higher education list, for instance, the following states have public schools in the top 50 overall colleges and universities: California, Michigan, Washington, Indiana, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas. But where’s SUNY?

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You might think that the average education level achieved within a state might correspond to the value that people put on public colleges in that state. But, based on the most recent US census, in fact, New York ranks in the top ten among states in terms of the percentage of people with a four-year college degree. And we rank even higher when we look at the percentage of people with advanced degrees. So the relatively low quality of SUNY schools compared with public schools in other state universities is not due to the fact that we have a relatively uneducated population.

The quality of public higher education must, you would think, track the wealth that exists within each state. After all, costs associated with public higher education have to, at the end of the day, come from money that the citizens of that state have. But New York regularly emerges as one of the wealthiest states in the nation, including being in the top ten for per-capita income nationwide in the most recent census. So it’s not a wealth thing. 

One might think that the taxes in a state relate to the quality of public higher education. A state may have a high proportion of wealth among its citizens, but if it doesn’t tax at a high enough rate, there will not be enough public monies available for higher education. 

Simply, maybe states that tax their citizens a lot have better public higher education than do other states. While this makes sense, applying this reasoning to the situation only adds to the SUNY conundrum. According to a recent article published by Kiplinger’s, New York is one of the ten least-tax-friendly states. In other words, New York taxes its citizens a ton. But if you live here in New York, you already know this. SUNY’s quality problem, then, is not due to the fact that the state under-taxes its citizens.

Perhaps the number of employees who work for public higher education within a state corresponds to the quality of the public higher education in that state. After all, if a large proportion of folks in a given state work in public higher education, they would be doubly motivated to ensure the quality of that public higher education. In many states, private employers such as Walmart are the leading employer. 

But guess who the number-one employer is in New York? Yes, it’s SUNY – the State University of New York, with more than 90,000 employees around the state. If you think that SUNY is somehow small potatoes in Albany, I’ve got a message for you: Think again. 

If state universities have adverse effects on the local and statewide economy, it might make sense to be wary of supporting public higher education. But, in fact, with more than two million students, alumni, and employees, SUNY has an economic impact of approximately $20 billion a year, according to a report of the Rockefeller Institute. Yes, that’s huge. SUNY is not only good for the economy. SUNY is great for the economy. So the economic impact that SUNY makes provides a strong justification for funding SUNY well. 

When it comes to public higher education, New Yorkers deserve better. We are a state with considerable wealth, a highly educated citizenship, and we pay our fair share of taxes. We don’t deserve to see the next list of the best colleges and universities put out by some national media source only to find SUNY either non-existent or hidden near the bottom. 

Across the state system, from Stony Brook to Rochester, from Plattsburgh to New Paltz, SUNY has deeply amazing faculty, staff, students and programs. But SUNY also has exceptional funding problems. And therein lies the concern.

Did you know that funding for SUNY from the state has remained virtually flat since 2012? Did you know that under the current funding model the majority of monies used to operate SUNY come from student tuition and not state tax dollars? Maybe it’s time to change the playing field. Maybe it’s time to invest in SUNY. 

If you’re interested in helping get our public higher education system here in New York — which so many of us value so much — onto the national map where it belongs, I strongly suggest that you write to your state senator with a simple point: Let’s stop with the underfunding of SUNY. We, the people of New York, deserve better. Fund SUNY now. Fund SUNY for our shared future.

There is one comment

  1. Bean Counter

    Rhode Island, Oregon, Washington, New York, and Arizona are the five states which are not self-supporting. New York may be “wealthy”, but that is only because it feeds on the poor, including the students who attend its public universities. You missed the most salient part of the U.S. Census report, which reiterates the same evidence of preying on the students who reside off campus as in the 2000 census and the 1990 census. In fact, come the 2020 census, those figures will repeat themselves again. If you are going to be forensic, you need another science to make your legal case.

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