Our City’s New Imperative: Invest In Higher Ed

It will require an honest assessment of the strengths and potential of our universities, public and private, so that we can make wise, quality-based investments. Right now, the strongest element in New York’s higher-education picture is the private universities and colleges; two-thirds of the degrees granted in New York are from the privates, only one-third from the publics (SUNY and CUNY). We must take account of this reality as we clarify each sector’s role.

It will require a compact between the public and the private universities, a blended effort to reduce the scramble for resources not only by expanding the pool of money but also by insisting upon collaborations that will use existing pockets of excellence to cultivate new ones. I envision a program in which, say, a private institution that receives a competitive state grant might be required to form a partnership with a counterpart at a public institution, with the principal actor receiving perhaps 70 percent of the grant and the collaborator receiving 30 percent.

It will require far more, and far more thoughtful, student aid, expanding access to higher education for talented students and retaining their talent for our state—for example, a loan-forgiveness program for those who commit to remaining in New York for at least five years after graduation.

None of this selective, meritocratic investment need compromise the important goal of expanding access to higher education, and both the public and private universities of our state have embraced that goal with great success. Idea capitals must be centers of human creativity at the highest level, enabling each citizen to optimize his or her potential.

Thankfully, there is evidence that New York’s leaders see the strategic view. Mayor Bloomberg is pressing “PlaNYC 2030,” which at its core realizes that the strategic advantage of the city is its intellectual, cultural and educational strength. And Governor Spitzer has convened a commission to discuss a higher-education strategy for our state, and has made clear that he sees the centrality of higher education to ensuring New York’s position as one of the world’s idea capitals.

In ways hard to appreciate in our immediate-gratification-by-quarterly-return society, whether these commendable efforts succeed in galvanizing bolder, wiser and greater investment in higher education will determine the kind of society and standards of living enjoyed by our grandchildren—and whether New York leads the world or follows.


John Sexton is president of N.Y.U., a member of Governor Spitzer’s New York State Commission on Higher Education, and the chair of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York. He served as chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from January 2003 to January 2007.

Our City’s New Imperative: Invest In Higher Ed