The State University of New York (SUNY) needs to make sure its campuses are upholding in-state residency requirements so that only eligible students receive the benefit of a lower tuition, according to an audit by Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. The audit found that many campuses had little or no verification of residency for SUNY graduate students, resulting in tuition undercharging.
“SUNY is enabling graduate students from out-of-state to take advantage of a tuition benefit that is supposed to be reserved for New Yorkers,” DiNapoli said. “SUNY’s medical schools and other graduate programs are highly competitive and represent an excellent value, regardless of residency status. SUNY administrators and staff need to ensure that tuition is charged correctly for both in-state and out-of-state students.”
SUNY is the nation’s largest public education system with 375,000 students and 64 institutions. Undergraduates who are New York residents are paying tuition of just under $7,100 for the 2021-2022 school year on average, while out-of-state students pay nearly $17,000. That difference is greater among graduate students, whose annual average tuition is $11,300 for in-state residents and $23,100 for out-of-state residents.
Students can qualify for in-state tuition in several ways, but the primary path is to show proof of residence for 12 months prior to registration. While a centralized SUNY office verifies information is complete for about half of undergraduate applicants, residency verification for the other half — and for all graduate applications — is left to individual campuses.
The audit’s review of seven SUNY campuses — University at Buffalo, Binghamton University, SUNY Downstate Sciences University, Empire State College, SUNY at Plattsburg, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), and SUNY at Geneseo — focused on the tuition charges for graduate students and found that each campus interpreted residency requirements their own way, with some simply accepting what the student listed for residence on their application. Auditors found that some campus officials did not know the residency policy applied to graduate students.
Auditors randomly sampled 1,207 graduate student application assessments from the seven campuses (out of 150,116 total) and found 421 (35%) had little or no documentation of residence. The vast majority of the problem was confined to four schools — Buffalo, Binghamton, ESF and Geneseo — with Buffalo having little or no documented support for graduate students’ residency in more than half the applications sampled.
The sample translates to a potential $1.3 million in tuition undercharges. DiNapoli’s audit projected the sample to the seven campuses’ total graduate enrollment and estimated that SUNY may have little or no support for the residency of more than 52,000 graduate student assessments.
The seven campuses comprise 40% of SUNY’s graduate student enrollment but with some officials stating they were unaware that residency rules apply or that they were confused by them, it’s possible that similar problems exist at many of SUNY’s other 21 campuses with graduate programs.
DiNapoli’s audit recommended that SUNY administrators provide better guidance and support to campuses on how to interpret and apply the Residency Policy to ensure tuition is charged correctly. It also recommended that campuses get sufficient proof of residency to determine eligibility for in-state tuition and maintain their documentation.
In its response, SUNY disagreed with some of the findings. Officials, however, said they are preparing additional guidance to campuses on residency determinations and documentation requirements and that, in response to the audit’s preliminary findings, they are taking steps to improve their residency determination and record retention policies. The full response is available in the audit.
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