Legislative leaders and advocates fear that a crushing deficit will force Gov. Andrew Cuomo to propose tuition increases for New York's public universities following years of funding cuts and a previous tuition hike.
The Cuomo administration, now working on the state budget proposal, hasn't yet signaled if the state's $11 billion or larger deficit will prompt an increase or if the governor's "no new taxes, period" promise will also mean no tuition increase for more than 600,000 students.
Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick fears the budget could reduce student financial aid and fail to provide adequate funding. Senate Higher Education Chairman Kenneth LaValle said Thursday the state must invest in the State University and City University systems that are its economic engines, not use them to balance a budget.
Cuomo will propose his budget to the Legislature by Feb. 1.
He has repeatedly given some hope to advocates that the public universities and particular SUNY will get attention and investment from Albany, rather than the cuts, tuition increase and failed proposals of the last four years.
Cuomo wants to use the campuses in his high-priority plan to revive the state's economy. That could shield SUNY and CUNY from the deep cuts that have hit most other areas of state government in recent years.
"The administration is working on the budget, and no final decisions have been made as to what the final proposals will be," said Cuomo spokesman Richard Bamberger.
SUNY spokesman Morgan Hook said the university is continuing to work on revenue issues, including tuition, in talks with the governor's office.
CUNY's board has already empowered Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to increase tuition in the fall by up to 5 percent, pending the fiscal outlook from Albany and the Legislature's approval. That follows a previously approved 5-percent increase effective this month.
"We have had so many cuts, we are crippling our future," Glick said. "The concern is that we don't diminish opportunities for New Yorkers. ... We are constantly fighting the same rearguard action."
Glick and LaValle criticized the $400 tuition increase three years ago because much of the revenue was later "swept" to be used outside the state and city universities to address deficits. Meanwhile SUNY and CUNY operating funding was cut.
"What happened in the last years was criminal in terms of the commitment that was made to the students who knew they were going to have an increase with some benefits, but got nothing," LaValle said. "We have to deal with that problem."
SUNY tuition is now $4,970 per year plus mandatory fees that average $1,235. CUNY's tuition is $4,830 per year plus about $400 in fees. Adding room and board and books gives New York public education about a $15,000-a-year price tag.
"Historically, every time there's been a fiscal crisis, public college students end up paying more. Every time. And often quite a lot," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a student supported good-government watchdog.
"All of my colleagues in higher education expect that we will be dealing with these cuts," SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher told CNBC's "Squawk Box" Thursday.
But she said Cuomo's interest in partnerships between campuses and private companies, as well as regulation reform that could save colleges money in purchasing, could help ease the need for cuts or any tuition increase.
"He's stuck in a massive dilemma," said Professor Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, one of CUNY's senior colleges. "Higher education is the avenue through which we can be the Empire State again ... but there are also these short-term fiscal emergencies."