‘Systemness’ Keeps College Affordable, Productive, Accessible

By Nancy L. Zimpher, Chancellor, State University of New York

In December, I had the opportunity to meet with President Barack Obama, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, senior White House officials, and a dozen of my colleagues from across the U.S. to discuss pressing issues in higher education. The meeting, which focused on the “iron triangle” of higher education — cost, productivity, and access and completion — served as an impetus for SUNY’s work in the year ahead.

I left the White House with a renewed sense of urgency toward carrying out the many SUNY programs that address New York’s challenges, educational needs and workforce demands. And I left more confident than ever that New York and SUNY can continue to be a model, in many respects, for education systems throughout the country.

Like other public colleges and universities in the U.S., SUNY is challenged to maintain the quality of its academic programs and overall education in the face of severe state funding cuts. With a total decrease of more than $1.4 billion over the last four years, our capacity to deliver programs and services had started to diminish. We were forced to implement faculty and staff hiring freezes and saw an increased reliance on adjunct faculty, reductions in course offerings and increases in class size.

Thankfully, SUNY found its champion when we needed one most. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo believes in SUNY’s unlimited potential and in the system’s unique ability to drive the economic future of New York. With his unwavering support and the passage of NYSUNY 2020 in 2011, SUNY was able to implement a five-year rational tuition policy that will allow our students and their families to plan for the costs of college — a plan that is critical to maintaining the affordability of a SUNY education. And even with the increases enabled by the policy over the next five years, SUNY’s tuition will continue to be the least expensive of any public institution in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states and among the lowest in the nation.

Once we achieved the legislative freedom to implement this policy, and while we asked our students to invest more in us, we were compelled to invest more in them. So we turned the mirror on ourselves. How could SUNY best serve students within the margins of its existing revenue stream?

Our answer has been to capitalize on what we call our “systemness.” Acting alone, each of our 64 campuses can and has made great achievements. But think of what can be accomplished when we leverage all of our individual strengths and act as one formidable force armed with an ambitious yet disciplined set of goals that promise to create not just a stronger public university system but also a better way of life for all of New York.

Controlling Cost

As a system, we can reduce administrative redundancies across the campuses and use the cost savings to improve the quality of student life. In 2011, we established Campus Alliance Networks among SUNY campuses in several regions of the state. Within these networks, campuses are identifying opportunities for shared administrative and operational functions in order to free up existing funding that can be redirected to enhancing academic programming and student services. This enables the campuses to expand access for students by making available to them the academic resources, courses and programs at additional campuses in the region, and it increases overall cost efficiency within SUNY.

In short, we are beginning to shift the funding balance from administrative costs to a greater investment in our students. And in doing so, we will improve student services across the board, by hiring more full-time faculty and adding more courses that contribute to degree completion.

We’ll take this initiative a step further in 2012 as we develop Regional Administrative Centers that will centrally process payroll, benefits, purchasing, travel and other basic administrative services. Further, over the next three years, all SUNY campuses will shift — at minimum — 5 percent of their administrative spending to academics and student services. This amounts to a total transfer of at least $100 million to bolster academic instruction and other student support services.

Enhancing Productivity

The additional support, however, cannot be squandered on providing services that were not intended as part of SUNY’s mission. Remedial education — the re-teaching of coursework that students should have mastered in high school — is one example. And it’s one of the biggest challenges to college success nationally.

In New York, SUNY alone spends more than $70 million a year on remediation. That’s more than we receive from the state to fund our entire ag/tech sector, which is comprised of eight campuses. To address this, we are inviting K-12 leaders across New York to partner with us as we seek to end the need for remedial education at the higher education level in our lifetime.

Eliminating remediation will bring students to SUNY on the right foot, and strategic enrollment management will help them graduate from SUNY prepared to work in tomorrow’s job market.

It’s not enough to simply educate students. It’s equally if not more important to prepare them for a career, one that they can pursue with measured success. Strategic enrollment management will allow SUNY to do just that, while meeting local workforce demands. In 2012, we will begin using labor statistics to determine workforce demand by region, and then we’ll adjust program offerings and enrollment patterns at campuses in each region to directly meet those needs.

Increasing Access and Completion

But we can’t just focus on the success of students enrolled at SUNY. To really have an impact on education in New York — and to ensure that our students are ready to tackle college-level work when they arrive on campus — we need to fix the leaks in the education pipeline beginning at the earliest stages of education and extending beyond college graduation.

To address New York’s needs across the continuum, SUNY is establishing cradle-to-career networks throughout the state. Modeled after the framework developed by Strive (a national partnership that helps communities build on opportunities, solve issues and overcome challenges and hurdles impacting the systems of learning in their communities), these regional education networks bring together community stakeholders — businesses, civic organizations, school districts, colleges, elected officials and other partners — in a commitment to improve the education system locally. Plans to create Strive-like networks are well underway in Rochester, Albany and Harlem. And just last month, we announced the beginnings of a first-ever rural Strive-like education partnership in Clinton County.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, SUNY is using its systemness to bring cooperative education to scale across New York. Today, the majority of college students — as many as 70 to 80 percent — work while enrolled in classes. SUNY Works is helping to ease the burden of debt for students who need an income while enrolled in college and, by incorporating paid internships in their field of study within the curriculum, helping them to gain invaluable work experience while earning an income.

At the same time, SUNY Works enables our colleges to send better-prepared, work-savvy graduates into the job market and provides incentive for New York companies to hire our own students to stay, live and work in-state. With 90 percent of co-op students ultimately being offered positions by co-op employers, the benefits of this program are significant for students, employers, colleges and New York State.

These are just some of the initiatives SUNY is moving forward as we address the “iron triangle” of higher education needs. We are fortunate to be launching these initiatives and countless others in partnership with education-minded leaders like President Obama and Governor Cuomo. It has been my experience that both are willing to be true leaders in steering the culture shifts that are needed to create real change to fix our education system across the country and here in New York.

I am confident that SUNY will continue to make significant gains toward meeting our goals in 2012 and that, as a nation and a state, we will continue to make real progress toward educating more Americans — and toward educating them in a more affordable and more efficient manner.