2016 Testimony on Rising Costs of Higher Education

The Rising Costs of Higher Education and Student Loan Debt in New York State

Assembly Standing Committee on Higher Education
Public Hearing – The Rising Costs of Higher Education and Student Loan Debt in New York State

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Good morning. I want to thank Chairperson Deborah Glick, Tuition Assistance Program subcommittee Chairperson Jo Anne Simon, members of the Assembly, and legislative staff for providing this opportunity to discuss the cost of attendance and its impact on access and affordability at The State University of New York.

I am pleased to be joined here today by Senior Vice Chancellor for Finance and Chief Financial Officer, Eileen McLoughlin and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Financial Aid, Patti Thompson.

SUNY was founded on a commitment to being fully inclusive of all New Yorkers. Access and affordability are naturally part of that equation. Access to an affordable, high-quality education is not just important for the over 600,000 students we serve throughout the academic year, but it’s critical to our state’s future. In New York, less than half of the adults hold a college degree, but 70 percent of all jobs will soon require one.

The future of our State’s competitiveness depends on us being laser-focused on investing in what works to drive completion for every student ....getting every student ready for a career that creates a return on educational investment not just for them as individuals, but also for the State.

Affordability at SUNY

Despite SUNY and the State’s shared commitment to affordability, the cost of attending college has grown over time. What we call the “sticker price” of college at our State-operated campuses – which captures not only tuition and fees, but also housing, dining plans, books, transportation, and other expenses - has increased over the past eight years, from $17,880 to $24,201; by $6,321, or 35.3 percent, mostly due to factors outside of our direct control.

A more important focus, however, is what students actually pay for college, or what is called the “net cost of attendance.” This takes into account financial aid provided to students and their families by our SUNY institutions, the federal government, and the State of New York through the generous Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Together, these supports reduce the cost of attending a SUNY institution dramatically.

The fact that SUNY has the most affordable public tuition in the northeast is due in no small part to the over $1 billion that the Legislature and the Governor invest in tuition assistance annually. At a time when there is so much conversation about the appropriate balance of the federal-state partnership in funding public higher education, we are proud that our State continues to demonstrate such a strong commitment to its students. As a result, 58 percent of our resident undergraduates receive a TAP award, with 67 percent of that population receiving a full TAP award of $5,165.

And, for 48 percent of our resident undergraduate full-time students, an additional benefit is provided by the receipt of a federal Pell Grant, with 53 percent of those who received a Pell award receiving the maximum grant of $5,815.

But as wonderful as the TAP program is, we are not resting on our laurels. We are hard at work with our partners in the State Education Department to ensure TAP works as effectively as possible for every student. Our efforts to improve TAP implementation include:

You’ll recall that I testified two years ago at this Committee’s hearing examining the Tuition Assistance Program, and we would be happy to further discuss our 2014 TAP recommendations in further detail following my comments.

In addition to Pell and TAP, SUNY campuses provide $128.0 million in scholarship awards and other institutional aid annually. This includes the $60.0 million that the State-operated campuses invest each year to close what we call “the TAP gap,” making up the difference for eligible students between tuition and what they receive in assistance. This activity, unique to SUNY and CUNY, means that every student who receives a TAP award receives a supplemental award from SUNY, further ensuring that the State’s neediest students are able to attend a SUNY State-operated institution tuition-free.

Altogether, state, federal, and institutional resources result in nearly 50 percent of resident undergraduate students attending SUNY tuition-free. [1]

As a result, from 2008 to 2013 – the most recent year for which national data is available – the actual or “net” cost of attendance at a SUNY State-operated campus increased only $1,714. [2] And net cost of attendance at SUNY community colleges rose only $292.2 This is a lower growth in cost than our neighbors in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. And this is just the average: it does not take into account the even lower costs experienced by lower income students and families.

Student Debt

According to our information, for those students who graduate with debt from a SUNY institution, the average debt load is $25,250. This is nearly $7,000 less than the number used by the State Comptroller, which includes all residents of New York State.

Using our calculations, a SUNY student graduating in four years from a bachelor’s degree program will be able to pay off their loans in ten to 15 years. And that is assuming minimum monthly payments, no increase in salary, and relatively high interest rates.

For the nearly 37,000 two-year degree and certificate recipient students, average debt upon graduation is much less: approximately $14,000.

And more than 40 percent of SUNY graduates carry no loan debt at all.

I want to point out that these types of calculations include important assumptions. We assume when we look at student loan debt that our students are able to complete their degrees on time. And we also assume that there are well-paying jobs available in their field when they graduate.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case, so we can’t afford to just talk about access – we need to make sure we are supporting students through completion, because we know that helping students finish on-time or early is one of the surest ways to diminish student debt.

Completion Agenda

We are proud that our four-year completion rate of nearly 49 percent is 15 percent above that of our national public peers. It means SUNY is leading the way on what is a national completion agenda.

However, it also means that there are still too many students graduating late, or not at all.

This brings me to SUNY’s Completion Agenda, which is far more data-driven and aggressive than what other states are doing. We are committed to investing in evidence-based approaches to combat the obstacles that get in the way of on-time completion:

  1. REMEDIATION/QUANTWAY/STATWAY: First, you know I am committed to working with our partners in the State Education Department and in communities across the state to make sure our students come to college, college ready. And if they do not, we need to get them on the path to success as quickly as possible. That is why SUNY is scaling the Quantway and Statway development math pathways; innovative approaches to teaching math that have a student success rate that is double the average of traditional remedial classes. They are now offered at 12 SUNY colleges across the state and 17 more are gearing up to join them. This scale up has happened quickly because we know that our system and our students can’t afford to spend time and money – in many cases financial aid dollars - on developmental coursework that does not count towards their degree.
  2. FINISH IN FOUR: Sometimes our students can’t complete on-time because the course they need for their major is not available when they need it. I know I’ve talked about this before, but I never get tired of it because it works. The University at Buffalo launched a “Finish in 4” program in 2012, through which UB commits to providing students with resources they need to succeed, including seats in required classes. In exchange, students pledge to follow their academic plan, register for classes on time, and communicate with an academic adviser every semester. Participants who fulfill all program obligations but are unable to graduate in four years can finish their degree at UB for free. The University at Buffalo launched Finish in 4 in 2012, with 63 percent of the first enrollees graduating this semester, far exceeding the national average of 34 percent for public institutions. Finish in 4 is already being replicated by colleges and universities throughout SUNY.
  3. RE-ENROLL TO COMPLETE: Students withdraw from college for a number of reasons and evidence has shown that they are unlikely to return to college and are statistically more likely to default on their student loan obligations. To combat this problem, we launched “Re-Enroll to Complete” – a comprehensive communications plan that encourages students to return to SUNY to complete their degree and educates them about available student loan repayment options. SUNY Brockport was able to reach 300 former students the first year they did this and 160 have gone back to school and either earned – or are completing – their degree.This is one of the most compelling programs we have elevated thanks to your support of SUNY’s Investment and Performance Fund and we must work to take this to scale across the SUNY system.
  4. APPLIED LEARNING: As a final example, I’ll point to applied learning, because applied learning opportunities have proven to increase student engagement and success during college and result in a higher rate of job placement following graduation. SUNY Optometry’s entire curriculum is based on applied learning opportunities for students, and they have a near 100 percent completion rate.SUNY Cobleskill and Alfred State recently elevated their roles as destinations for hands-on education, with a requirement that all students complete an applied learning opportunity before they graduate. This will ensure students have hands-on learning experiences before they graduate and help them find long-term success in New York’s workforce.

All of this and much more comes together in SUNY’s Completion Agenda. And this couldn’t be more important because the less time students spend in college, the less they need to spend on college.

Free College

Before we take your questions, I would like to speak to the issue raised in the hearing notice of free, or debt-free, college.

As many of you know, the classic perception of college students—18-to-21-year-olds who go to school full time—are really only about a third of the college population nationally. At SUNY, nearly 20 percent of our undergraduate students are 25 or older. At our community colleges, it’s nearly 25 percent.

Additionally, 30 percent of our undergraduate students are attending part-time. When looking at community colleges alone, 45 percent of students attend part-time.

Since 2002, we have seen a nearly 140 percent increase in Hispanic/Latino enrollment – or 30,000 more students. Over the same time period, we have seen a 45 percent increase in African American enrollment – more than 14,000 more students.

All this is to say something we all know: our student demographics have evolved, and so have the expectations for the credentials they will have when they enter the workforce. Over time, we’ve seen our understanding of a universal education expand from primary education to K-12, then to include universal pre-kindergarten to P-12, and most recently to P-14, or free community college.

Since the free community college idea was launched, people have debated whether it should be “tuition-free” or “debt-free” or some other definition of free. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s about making sure every investment the State and students and their families make results in meaningful college completion and career success.

Affordability is critical, but we’ve learned that it’s finishing that matters. Put simply, the promise of free college is only good if we can deliver success for all students. And that takes investment.


In conclusion, we at SUNY are proud of the work we are doing every day to deliver on our promise of providing high-quality, affordable education to every single New Yorker, and to provide the benefit of SUNY to every part of the state.

The impact, benefits, and investment of the Legislature and the Governor in existing programs are real, and I see the effects first hand as I travel across the state and talk to students, campus leaders, and communities.

Thank you for your time and for bringing us here today to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing our students. It is always a privilege.

Patti would be happy to answer any questions you may have on our interpretation of the State’s TAP program, or our supplementation thereof. And Eileen would be more than happy to address any questions you may have on our operational needs.

[1] This represents resident undergraduate students who are enrolled in a traditional two-semester academic year in a baccalaureate program.

[2] State-operated net cost of attendance rose from $12,407 to $14,121. Community college net cost rose from $6,588 to $6,880. Source: National Center for Education Statistics.

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