Cortland County

Higher ed in upstate NY: a perspective

Commentary on Tuesday's post on higher ed in our area by Tom Reynolds:

In the past, we have been shielded from the worst of economic times and the assumption is that it will go on forever—and that's what always gets us into trouble.  People borrow too much, governments spend too much, people drink too much beer thinking that life isn't a pendulum and good things last forever.

Colleges have not had a recession since World War II ended because the government has poured money into education without ceasing and, in many cases, without getting appropriate results.

SUNY colleges want to make decisions like private colleges, but they want the public funding subsidy to continue so they will still have a huge competitive advantage over private schools.  Let SUNY Cortland and SUNY Geneseo compete for students against Ithaca College on equal tuition terms if the SUNY schools are unwilling to fulfill the purpose for which they were established: to make a lower cost college degree available to NY residents.

Private colleges are directly subsidized through grant programs (Bundy money for example) and indirect programs for student aid (TAP, Pell, etc.).  They are also subsidized through required professional certification and continuing education courses that are taught by faculty and through overhead rates on grants (lab science grants came with a 100% overhead rate when I was handling them. So, a $1 million grant gives half a million to the college, not to the project).

But over 40 cents of every dollar spent by the feds is borrowed and the national debt will soon reach $16 trillion on an annual budget of $4 trillion.  NY State has huge structural budget issues that it will not address.  And yet education expects to continue to be funded in the manner to which it has become accustomed.

College liberals and our Assemblywoman decry "Wall Street," but colleges actively seek multi-million dollar gifts from those who got the hated "Wall Street bonuses."  Individuals invest their pensions in "Wall Street" and "oil company" stocks, and college endowments are filled with those "greedy" investments.  Where was the righteous indignation from our Assemblywoman last year when Cornell got a multi-million dollar gift from a "Wall Streeter"?  Why wasn't she condemning it as the progeny of "Wall Street" greed?  Colleges depend upon large donations and when business suffers, the giving suffers. 

Remember, the money that makes our colleges run comes from outside the Tompkins County area.  Tompkins will not continue as an economic island if we are surrounded by a sinking economy.  What happens if the governments cut back?  Where will the tuition money come from if "Wall Street" and "Main Street" are in a long term recession? Colleges say that people come back for an education when economic times are tough.  But they come back on borrowed money because they don't have a job. 

Many areas of Cornell could continue relatively unchanged as they are selective enough to ease their admissions standards in order to keep a full house and continue to support Cornell faculty in the manner to which they have become accustomed.  Of course, faculty will publicly decry the drop in standards while privately celebrating their continuing jobs.  But some areas of Cornell are public and they will certainly feel the effect.  Non-faculty may not be so lucky.  When Cornell sneezes, Tompkins County gets the flu.

Ithaca College will be another matter.  Certainly, they have a few selective schools, but when I worked there, admissions to their Liberal Arts programs required little more than the proverbial "pulse."  It has been many years since I worked for IC, but I know that private liberal arts colleges have not been increasing their admissions standards over the ensuing years, and they are heavily depedent upon government-supported student aid to keep up their census and high tuition charges.  A long term downturn in the economy and government aid will have a significant effect on IC and it will cause more than a sneeze.       

SUNY Cortland was contemplating major furloughs a year ago during that year's state budget crises.  They will certainly be affected by any state cutbacks, more so than Cornell or IC.  Cortland County, unlike Tompkins County, does not have a history of economic isolation.  

These institutions will not close, but cutbacks will affect their entire industry in an area that is primarily dependent upon that industry.  House values will sink as jobs dissappear.  People have already been leaving upstate NY in droves and if education falters, there is nothing left to keep people here.  Taxes will go up even more as there are fewer jobs to provide tax dollars.

Any decent industry leader does not want to become dependent upon one source of revenue.  But in the past, our one source has kept Tompkins insulated from economic reality and our liberal leadership believes it will continue forever.  Maybe it will.  Then again, maybe it won't.  And if it doesn't, Tompkins will be in a bad spot in a state that is broke, with political leadership totally clueless as to what to do.

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