Escalating tuition is putting higher education out of the reach of our most vulnerable citizens. Last summer’s 28 percent jump for in-state four-year colleges, as well as a recently adopted plan to institutionalize yearly tuition hikes at the State University of New York, demonstrate the system’s tenuous state.

Students certainly got that message as they scrambled to find the means to pursue their degrees. But all of us should ask how leaders at all levels – elected officials, SUNY administrators, faculty representatives – have avoided responding to this crisis with bold, effective actions and what might be done to resolve it.

One answer is found in habits developed over years of more ample government funding of higher education. Complacent that good times would last forever, and fearing the political price of real reform, higher education boards forsook the opportunity to make internal reforms to restrain campus costs in preparation for lean years and so protect themselves from what has become a chronic economic crisis.

Inevitably, fiscal reality reasserted itself – hence the massive tuition increase at SUNY on the heels of a 15 percent reduction in state subsidies.

In anticipation of just such straits, the Legislature in its 1995 “Charge to the State University of New York,” required the Board of Trustees to develop a multi-year plan for SUNY “to increase cost-efficiency in the continuing pursuit of the highest quality and broadest possible access.” The Legislature specified that the board examine ways to increase faculty productivity, strengthen academic specialization, enhance the application of technology for academic and administrative purposes and decrease time to program completion.

That same year, in a long-range plan entitled “Re-Thinking SUNY,” the board committed itself to fulfilling those mandates by outlining several steps to provide SUNY a healthy and productive existence well into the future when lean times returned.

Yet the SUNY administration has taken little effective action to satisfy its obligations under that plan, and the institution now finds itself playing “catch up.”

So what can be done to rein in college costs and put SUNY on a firm financial footing?

Essentially, the board must direct SUNY Chancellor Robert King not merely to “tinker” in relatively minor and ineffective ways with reform but instead to truly rethink – fundamentally restructure – the university’s financial operations and organization.

This restructuring should include:

  • An increase in the teaching productivity of full-time faculty who are not engaged in service and/or serious and peer-reviewed research.

  • Consolidating academic programs, both within and among campuses, that serve few students and eliminating programs and courses of questionable value — all the while protecting and enhancing those programs essential to SUNY’s core undergraduate mission and to each campus’ individual missions;

  • Far greater use of interactive online learning. For example, SUNY’s Distinguished Teaching Professors could create excellent cost-efficient general education courses and courseware to serve students across the system. When supplemented by faculty instruction on-campus, this blended approach could achieve higher-quality instruction at lower cost.

  • Tightening time-to-degree requirements. In 1995, the SUNY Board observed that many students continue to get state support while earning credits that far exceed their degree requirements. A 2002 Associated Press article revealed that only one in three SUNY students graduates within four years from four-year colleges, and in 2001 the six-year graduation rate for SUNY students was 55 percent, a drop of 4 percent from 1997. This represents an expensive delay that deficit-plagued states such as New York should try to shorten.

These four reforms would significantly increase cost-effectiveness in the SUNY system. They would not just protect access to SUNY, but enhance it – while ensuring high-quality education. Further, better development and use of interactive on-line learning would guarantee even greater access than is available now.

Such, in essence, was also the conclusion of a 1997 Rand study that urged colleges and universities to “develop sharing arrangements to improve productivity” and recommended that universities and departments “collaborate to pool introductory courses and instructors as a way to save resources and provide the best instruction.” Significantly, it stated that “use of the Internet may facilitate this task.”

The Legislature’s 1995 mandates are as relevant today as then. Indeed, implementing them is all the more urgent now in order to stem the tide of financial entropy on SUNY campuses and so prevent further tuition hikes.

Candace de Russy is a member of the IWF National Advisory Board and the SUNY Board of Trustees.