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SUNY Chancellor John King discusses student aid, new focus on reading science in higher ed

SUNY Chancellor John King
Lucas Willard
SUNY Chancellor John King

As state lawmakers pass final budget measures, the head of New York’s public university system is hoping for more tuition assistance for college students.

State University of New York Chancellor John King is pushing for an increase in funding for the Tuition Assistance Program that would bring the minimum award from $500 to $1,000.

The legislation would also raise the dependent student income limit from $80,000 to $125,000.

WAMC's Lucas Willard sat down at SUNY Central this week with King, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and New York State Education Commissioner, about the proposed TAP increase, the New York State budget, and other challenges facing the 64-campus state university system.

The New York State Tuition Assistance Program is such an important part of the New York higher education landscape, helping low- and middle-income folks access college. The income threshold hasn't changed since 2000. So, if you think about $80,000 in 2000, in today's dollars, that would be upwards of $140,000. So, this step of increasing the threshold to under $125,000 is hugely important. There's a whole set of families that now will access state tuition assistance who couldn't before. For SUNY, it's 26,000 students who will be eligible for TAP assistance now, who weren't before. So, very important step, really appreciate the governor's leadership, the leadership of the legislature on this issue. You know, we are very excited that we saw the first increase in enrollment across SUNY in a decade, this past fall. An increase in every sector, community colleges, or four-year comprehensive institutions, our tech campuses, and our university centers, all saw increases. The increase for first-year enrollment was more than 4%, really promising for long-term trends. But affordability is a huge challenge. And there's no question there are people who look at the cost of college and say, ‘I'm just not sure I can make it.’ So doing things like increasing the TAP income threshold, increasing that minimum award, that's going to make college more accessible to more folks.

Do you see a need, down the line, possibly, to tie that TAP threshold to inflation so we're not revisiting this again in 20 years down the line when that number has gone even higher?

Look, that'd be fantastic. You know, the legislature organized a hearing on TAP. And at that hearing, a few months back, one of the topics that was raised by a number of legislators was the possibility of tying the TAP income threshold to inflation, so that we wouldn't have to keep coming back to do this. So, that makes a ton of sense. I really want to appreciate Assembly Chair Pat Fay here and Senate Chair Toby Staviski for their tenacious leadership on this, raising the issue around the need to adjust TAP. This is really a major step forward.

So, on another item in Governor Hochul’s budget proposal, $10 million for the implementation of Science of Reading programs. How do you see this being implemented for education students? And could that potentially involve new or mandatory credits on reading fundamentals, on reading science, for students who are going to school to become teachers?

Look, we are going through an important shift as a country. You know, we sort of drifted away over the last few years from what the science and research tells us about how students learn to read. We know students need decoding phonics. They also need to grow their vocabulary and build their background knowledge so they can be better readers. In those early grades, you learn to read. But after third grade, you read to learn. Whether it's in English and social studies class or science or math, reading is foundational to academic success. So, we're making that shift. For our SUNY institutions, it means we're looking at our current course offerings for new teachers. We also launched at SUNY New Paltz, a micro credential program, that has now served over 5000 educators. It's a micro credential designed to help current teachers get additional training, additional support around implementing the Science of Reading in their classrooms. New York City has made a big shift in their curriculum towards Science of Reading. So, a lot of New York City teachers have participated in that credential micro credential program, but we've had teachers from across the state, and we look forward to continuing to grow that program.

So, we're speaking in Albany and not too far from where we are sitting, the College of Saint Rose is preparing for closure at the end of the spring semester. Is this trend that's affecting, that we're observing, in small liberal arts colleges, private schools, as the SUNY Chancellor, does that worry you? And is the public university system also facing some challenges?

Look, it's very sad to see community institutions go away. And you know, as an Albany resident, I'm sad to see College of Saint Rose go. It's an important institution for the community. There are a couple things for us at SUNY that we need to do. One is make sure we do everything we can to help the students. So, for example, we are launching undergraduate education programs at UAlbany. So that students who are at Saint Rose now can stay in Albany, switch over to UAlbany and complete their degrees. That's important. We want to make sure we take care of the students. Second, we've got to take the right lessons away from a place like Saint Rose. We really have to be focused on growing enrollment and being fiscally disciplined. And that is something we're trying to do throughout the SUNY system. We are deeply committed to all 64 of our campuses and the communities we serve. We want our institutions to be healthy for the long term. And in some cases, that will mean hard choices to make sure that we are able to thrive going forward.

Recently, I was over at RPI, up the river in Troy, for an announcement about their IBM quantum supercomputer, which is pretty impressive in itself. But as part of that announcement, RPI announced a partnership with UAlbany, where the IBM AI system over at UAlbany and the quantum supercomputer, IBM, at RPI, students would be able to collaborate across a public and a private university for research. And really, in this part of New York state that's becoming a hotbed for high tech innovation, certainly that is being applauded by the business community around here. What do you think of these kinds of partnerships between SUNY colleges and private research institutions? Is that something that you'd like to see more of?

Absolutely. Look, we want to make sure that New York is the leader in every industry. We're very excited that Micron is coming to Central New York, going to bring 50,000 jobs between Micron and the supply chain companies. We've got lots of universities in Central New York, from community colleges to research institutions participating in the effort to make sure we have the workforce we need for Micron. You know, the AI initiative at Albany and RPI is complemented by the governor's Empire AI initiative that will build a new supercomputing site at University of Buffalo that will be accessed by faculty and our four research universities, Stony Brook, UB-Binghamton and UAlbany, but also researchers at RPI at Cornell, at Columbia, at NYU. We've got an effort around battery technology in the Southern Tier. Binghamton is the lead. But lots of partners working with us on that Stony Brook is going to create a climate campus at Governors Island, just off the coast of Manhattan. A $700 million project, again, a number of university partners, CUNY as well as private institutions. So, we've done think that research is a place where New York can gain a competitive advantage over other states. We've got Senator Schumer, who has been amazing and making sure that the federal government is making big investments, like the CHIPS Act, like the inflation Reduction Act, where investments can help us lead the way forward in important areas for our economy.

There's been a lot of action in the Biden administration concerning student loan debt. And there's been, of course, a lot of ebbs and flows. An initial proposal that was struck down by the courts and then smaller programs that have been rolled out over time since then, the public service loan forgiveness program expansion being one of them. Has all of these conversations about student debt and student loan forgiveness…how are you seeing that? And how do you think SUNY can play a role when we talk about tuition reduction in reducing the burden of loans on students?

Yeah, look, this effort by the by the administration to pursue debt relief is really important for the health of our economy, to help lift this tremendous burden that young people feel that's keeping them from starting a business, getting married, buying a home, it's really to correct a policy mistake, which is that over the last 45 years, as a country, we have underinvested in higher education, particularly public higher education. In 1980, through the Pell Grant program, that Pell Grant, the Federal Pell Grant program covered 80% of the costs of public higher education. Today, less than a third. And so, what we did over a 45 year period as a country is we shifted the burden from being a public good, a public investment to something that families and students had to borrow to pay for. That was a mistake. I'm glad that Biden administration is trying to correct that with debt relief. But we also need to correct it in Pell grant policy. We ought to double the Federal Pell Grant. I hope the federal elected officials will look at what New York is doing around the TAP program and realize that it's the right thing for government to make a bigger investment in financial aid for students and making sure college is affordable.

Now Chancellor King, I'm speaking to you right now in a presidential election year. So, there's been a lot of things related to higher education that have been in the public debate, if you will. Free speech on college campuses, there's a lot of scrutiny over concerns of anti semitism on college campuses. Are you as Chancellor are taking a look at any of SUNY system-wide campus speech policies? And that comes also as some systems, I'm thinking down in Florida, where there are restrictions that are being placed on DEI programs and other kinds of equity initiatives.

We have a responsibility to make sure our students have a campus climate that is safe and supportive. In fact, Title Six of the Civil Rights Act requires that higher ed institutions ensure that students are free from discrimination or harassment. So, we've been very clear. We will not tolerate anti-semitism on SUNY campuses. We are training all our folks on Title Six so they understand how to respond when there's a report of bias, what the appropriate steps are to take. That said, we are also academic institutions that want to foster lively discussion of difficult public policy topics. And so, we just launched a civic engagement fellowship, where we have 10 or so faculty members from across our system, who will help support their colleagues in strengthening civic discourse on all of our campuses. You know, it's a skill that we need to make sure our students have. How do you disagree agreeably? How do you listen to someone whose opinion different from yours and actually consider what their arguments are and sift the evidence? How do you work together productively with people whose values may differ from yours? And so we're going to continue to work to strengthen those habits of civic dialogue across our campuses. We also are committed to Diversity, Equity Inclusion, and we're not going to shy away from that that's a part of who we are in New York, it's part of who SUNY has been for our entire 75-year history, that we want to make sure we're serving all New Yorkers from every community. And so, we actually have a course requirement, that every student before they graduate, will take a course that deals with themes of diversity, equity, inclusion. Think about someone who's going to be a nurse, they ought to have conversation about racial health disparities, the horrific maternal health disparities for women of color. Think about someone who's going into education, they ought to be thinking about what kinds of supports do their students need, who are English learners. So, we're going to continue that work, we're going to stand up for the value of diversity. We believe at SUNY it makes our campuses stronger, makes our communities stronger, makes our country stronger.

[The] Supreme Court's action on Affirmative Action…that does complicate things, I imagine, for how colleges and universities are looking at academic enrollment. Has that affected the way SUNY does business?

Yeah, look that the Supreme Court decision ending race conscious admissions, I think was a step backwards for the country. I fear that it sends a message to black and brown young people, that they're not welcome on, on college campuses. So we want to make sure it's Sunni, we are sending the opposite message. We value diversity, we want diversity in our student body, and our faculty and our leadership. So, we're gonna use every tool available under the law to make sure we advance diversity. So, in our admissions policies, we make sure that we credit students being first generation, first in their family to go to college. Students who are coming from a low income background and have overcome challenges. Students who've experienced adversity in their school or community and overcome that adversity. Students who are AmeriCorps alumni have spent time doing public service. Students who are veterans and have spent time serving their country. The Supreme Court also allowed students to share how race may have played a role in their own lives, and challenges they've overcome, aspirations they've developed, and so of course, we're going to look at every application and hear from students about their experience, what makes them unique and special, and what's going to allow them to be a good contributor to their campus community. So, we believe that using those race neutral tools, we can continue to preserve our values around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

And, Chancellor King, you've led education in the state and at the federal government, and now it back in New York with the state university system. When you look at the next five, ten years, and you look at the trends and the way things are going. Do you have a particular goal of how you want to improve higher education in your term as SUNY Chancellor?

Yeah, look, at first and foremost is student success. We want every New Yorker to know there's a place for them at SUNY, whether that's at one of our two-year institutions or four-year institutions at one of our university centers or in a graduate program. And we want the students to come to us to succeed while they're are with us and graduate. And, you know, improving persistence, completion and then economic success once students leave us, that has to be core to what we do every day. So, we are every day asking what other supports can we put in place? How can we address food insecurity, housing insecurity? What can we do to help students tackle transportation challenges? How can we make sure that academic supports, the tutoring, the intensive supports for students with disabilities or with mental health challenges are in place so that students come to our campuses to thrive? You know, sadly millions of folks across the country have some credits, but no degree. And in some cases, they are worse off because they spent money to get those credits but didn't get the degree so they can't get the job that would help them pay off that debt. We want to make sure that the students who come to us finish and we want those New Yorkers who have some credits and no degree, come on back, come to SUNY, finish that degree, get the benefits of a college education, which includes over a million dollars more in earnings over your lifetime.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.