Special academic support programs at New York's public colleges and universities are an important part of serving a wide range of students. Yet, as vital as these programs are, they are just one part of the funding picture for public higher education.
Lawmakers often focus on restoring cuts to programs, especially those that help high-needs students, council members said when they met in Buffalo just before the start of NYSUT's Representative Assembly.
For NYSUT and its higher education affiliates, the challenge is to get lawmakers to show the same support to the state's public higher education system as a whole. Members of NYSUT's Higher Education Policy Council are planning a way to do that.
Examples abounded in this year's budget, including a $6 million increase to the SUNY Educational Opportunity Program over Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recommendation, and restoration of the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs at the CUNY community colleges, which has been praised for helping high-risk students complete their degrees.
Now, council members want the Legislature to have a serious discussion about the overall fiscal health of SUNY, CUNY and the community colleges that goes beyond incremental support.
"We have gotten positive reactions from legislators about access and diversity," said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions at SUNY. "We can craft a message of funding the entire public higher education system in a way that's fair."
The policy council, led by Roberta Elins, president of the United College Employees of the Fashion Institute of Technology, is an advisory body to NYSUT. At the heart of the council's effort since 2008 has been the development of strategies to reverse longstanding funding cuts to public higher education.
In the final state budget, community colleges received a $100 increase in operating aid per full-time student, and SUNY and CUNY received $15 million and $12 million respectively. NYSUT, in concert with UUP and the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, defeated the governor's proposal to withhold 10 percent of funding for SUNY and CUNY campuses until they completed vague performance-based requirements.
The council wants a broad range of advocates — students, parents, lawmakers and community organizations — to understand how the state has decimated the public higher education budget in New York.
"The Legislature is being bombarded with a series of different messages," said Steve London, first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress. "I think we need to say somehow that the core is being hollowed out."
PSC Treasurer Michael Fabricant, said a major issue the unions need to put before the Legislature is not one of access, but that the state is not fulfilling its obligation to properly fund public higher education.
"Students are being admitted – but it's access to what?" Fabricant asked. "An increasingly debased university. We've got to bang away at this question of quality and its relation to investment."
Council members also discussed expanding successful strategies from this budget session. Kevin Peterman, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College and a NYSUT Board member, said last year's effort with students was so successful that the faculty association organized another, larger effort this year.
"We have some real good stories to tell, and our students can tell them better than we can," Peterman said.