The leaders of SUNY and CUNY, the state's public university systems, testified Monday they are pleased with increased funding for higher education in Gov. Kathy Hochul's budget, but lawmakers continue to question if it's enough to offset multi-million-dollar deficits plaguing several campuses. 

The leaders of SUNY and CUNY painted a rosy picture to lawmakers during a legislative budget hearing in Albany of the governor's budget as 19 campuses report a combined deficit of $160 million and continue to be burdened by years of declining enrollment.

Hochul proposed annual SUNY and CUNY tuition increases tied to the Higher Education Price Index or 3% — whichever is lower. Tuition at SUNY's four research institutions in Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and at Stony Brook would increase an additional 6% above SUNY's base tuition rate each year for the next five years, capping at a 30% increase for in-state students. 

"How will a tuition increase help reverse the trend of declining enrollment and bring students back to SUNY and to CUNY ... particularly looking at during times of inflation?" asked Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, who chairs the Higher Education Committee.

SUNY Chancellor John King said adequate academic programs, mental health services and other student supports require that funding.

"We think the quality of services that campuses can offer is really important in being competitive in attracting students," King said. "...In the end, we think the tuition increase over time — a very modest tuition increase — will help us actually position the campuses to better attract students."

SUNY and CUNY each do not expect to close or consolidate any state-funded campuses, community colleges or facilities amid the financial challenges.

"We think that each of our campuses, with the right support, can adapt their programs to meet the regional economic development needs," King said.

The tuition hikes would not apply to any student who receives a full Tuition Assistance Program or Excelsior scholarship. The increases would not take effect for the 2023-24 academic year.

Tuition at SUNY's 64 campuses and CUNY senior colleges last increased in the 2019-20 academic year — staying flat the last three academic years, according to Hochul's office. In 2022-23, New York’s public four-year colleges had average tuition and fees of $8,556, lower than 43 other U.S. states, according to the College Board. The national average is $10,940.

"New York deserves the best public higher education system and Gov. Hochul is committed to building world-class, equitable institutions," a spokesperson for the governor said in a statement Monday. "Gov. Hochul's plan for SUNY and CUNY ensures that no student receiving a full TAP award or an Excelsior scholarship will experience additional tuition costs, while also providing for the long-term future and fiscal stability of public higher education in New York."

President of United University Professions Frederick Kowal pleaded with lawmakers to include millions of dollars of more funding in their counter budget proposals to help the 19 campuses and public teaching hospitals with multi-million-dollar budget gaps. 

UUP, which represents more than 42,000 higher education faculty and retirees, is fighting for a $110 million increase in SUNY's operating aid and for $160 million to create the State University Financially Distressed Campus Fund for direct assistance to the 19 campuses in crisis.

“Gov. Hochul’s goal of revitalizing SUNY and making it the best public higher education system in the nation cannot happen when all but six of its campuses are in serious financial jeopardy," Kowal said. "It was counterproductive for prior administrations to financially starve these campuses, which are a proven economic engine for the state and the communities they serve. With a surplus of $8.6 billion, the state has the resources to stabilize SUNY’s 19 campuses and hospitals. We urge Governor Hochul and state lawmakers to work together to provide the funding to stabilize our 19 campuses and teaching hospitals in this year’s budget.” 

The fiscal hardship comes after more than a decade of inadequate funding for SUNY, Kowal said.

King asked lawmakers to push for additional funding for SUNY hospitals also facing steep deficits, including a $!33 million gap for SUNY Downstate Medical Center this year.

SUNY is working on improving the funding formula for community colleges as they continue to struggle to recover from the COVID pandemic.

SUNY officials are focusing on expanding programs in high demand, such as in nursing or cybersecurity, and plan to have periods waiving application fees and increasing advertising to increase the number of applicants.

SUNY will also contact students denied enrollment from one campus encouraging them to re-apply at another facility or program, and sending letters to all high school seniors, King said.

About 2 million New Yorkers have SUNY course credit without completing a program.

Both King and CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodriguez asked the Legislature for more funding to hire staff to meet the increased interest.

Fraudulent nursing diplomas from out of state online programs have impacted prospective faculty and students getting hired or accepted to SUNY campuses and hospitals with the pandemic's push to remote learning. The state Education Department, the federal government and law enforcement continue to work together to investigate faulty online nursing programs.

State Education Department Deputy Commissioner Sarah Benson said the department has at least weekly conversations with police and federal officials about the ongoing probe.

"Additional information continues to be forthcoming," Benson said. "We'll work with them and with counsel on the appropriate next steps."

The SUNY system continues to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for all students, faculty and staff. The chancellor cast doubt that policy will change anytime soon after other universities in New York have since dropped the public health requirement. Some lawmakers questioned if the mandate should be rescinded to further increase enrollment.

"We've been guided by advice from public health experts and continue to gather that advice to ensure that we're following the best available that comes from public health," King said. "...We want to make sure we're guided by the best public health expertise."

Students and staff can apply for exceptions for religious or health-related reasons, King said.

Editor's note: SUNY Downstate Medical Center has a $133 million gap this year. An earlier version of this story stated the gap was $33 million.