With continuing funding problems, many are beginning to wonder if the state of New York can afford its university system anymore. As Daniel Massey and Miriam Kreinin Souccar explain in an article in Crain’s New York Business:

The growing protests on the campuses of New York’s public university are just one indication of a simmering crisis. With repeated multimillion-dollar cuts in funding since 2007 and the state confronting a $9 billion budget gap, the State University of New York and City University of New York face their stiffest challenge since the 1970s. Despite record enrollment and hard-earned gains in reputation, SUNY and CUNY schools are stuck between two virtually impossible options: increase tuition, or get a broke state to allocate more money for higher education.

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, however, campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes. But it’s the taxes that are the problem. New York isn’t “broke” because of the cost of public colleges; it’s insolvent because it isn’t taking in enough in taxes.

According to a Reuters piece from earlier this year, “the wellspring of New York’s economy is the financial sector, which nearly ran aground last year” and “most of the state’s current… deficit stems from falling tax collections.”

Much of the state budget doesn’t have anything to do with higher ed anyway, gigantic and expensive as the SUNY system might seem. Two-thirds of the annual budget goes to K-12 school aid and the state’s Medicaid program.

But cutting state funding for public universities is a common tactic for states during economic hard times. The entire New York public university system was initially free and remained so until the 1963, when an economic crisis led officials to charge tuition at the State University of New York. Another fiscal crisis led trustees to institute tuition at the City University of New York in 1975.

While times got better, the system never went back to free tuition.

So, can New York afford its state colleges? Yes, yes it can. Raise taxes a little. Monitor costs to ensure effectiveness. No one ever wonders if New York can “afford” roads or public schools or all of those damn prisons. It looks like affordability depends on New York’s priorities.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer