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CUNY vs. SUNY: 6 Main Differences

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The Empire State is home to a variety of higher education opportunities, including two fantastic public options: the City University of New York (CUNY) system and the State University of New York system (SUNY). CUNY has the distinction of being the country’s largest urban university system, while SUNY is notably the largest system of universities, colleges, and community colleges in the United States.  


The CUNY and SUNY systems are operated independently of each other and while there are some similarities between the two, there are also a handful of differences. Keep reading to learn more about the CUNY vs. SUNY systems.


Overview: CUNY vs. SUNY


The CUNY system consists of 25 campuses—11 senior colleges, 7 community colleges, and 7 post-graduate institutions—spread across New York City’s five boroughs. 


The SUNY system is made up of 64 schools of all types and sizes spread across the state, 26 of which offer four-year bachelor’s degree programs. 








Price (full-time tuition per year at four-year colleges) 

In-state: $6,930

Out-of-state: $18,600

In-state: $7,070

Out-of-state: $16,980

Graduation Rate
(four-year programs) 

Six year: 53% 

Four-year: 40%

Six-year: 68%

Four-year: 55%


More than 1,750 academic programs and 200 majors

More than 7,000 degree and certificate programs


Slightly less prestigious

Slightly more prestigious

Student Life 

Mostly commuters 

Largely residential 


1. Location 


Location is one of the primary distinguishing characteristics between CUNY and SUNY. The CUNY schools are located across all five boroughs of New York City and offer an urban college experience. The schools of the SUNY system are spread across the state of New York and offer a variety of campuses, from urban campuses like SUNY Buffalo to suburban settings such as SUNY New Paltz to more rural locations like SUNY Cortland. 


2. Price 


CUNY vs. SUNY in cost is pretty even. The average full-time tuition per year for those in four-year programs at CUNY and SUNY are: 


  • CUNY in-state/out-of-state: $6,930/$18,600
  • SUNY in-state/out-of-state: $7,070/$16,980


CUNY receives funding from both the State of New York and New York City, which helps it have slightly lower tuition costs than SUNY. It’s worth noting, however, that CUNY’s city campuses can add expense—three of New York City’s five boroughs count themselves among the most expensive cities in the U.S., and the cost of living in Manhattan is a staggering 154% higher than the national average.


Therefore, it’s helpful to look at the total direct and indirect costs for both school systems as well. This includes student fees, room and board, transportation, food, etc.:


  • CUNY in-state/out-of-state total cost: $31,376/$43,046
  • SUNY in-state/out-of-state total cost: $22,920/$32,830


3. Graduation Rate


Graduation rates at the SUNY schools are higher than that of the CUNY schools. This is not an indictment of the educational quality of the CUNY schools, although it does shine a spotlight on some of the challenges facing CUNY students. A 2020 story by the Gotham Gazette found that limited course offerings and a shortage of advisors were partially responsible for the system’s low graduation rates. 


4. Programs 


SUNY is a much larger system than CUNY—SUNY has 64 campuses and an undergraduate enrollment of 350,889 compared to CUNY’s 25 campuses and 149,365 undergraduates. Consequently, the number of programs and degree offerings differs greatly between the two. SUNY offers more than 7,000 degree and certificate programs while CUNY offers more than 1,750 academic programs for degree-seeking students.


It’s also worth noting that there are differences in the courses and programs offered at the different schools within each system and it’s important to research the schools individually when building your college list. 


5. Prestige 


Both CUNY and SUNY have well-deserved reputations for rigorous academics, although SUNY is generally thought of as having the more prestigious schools. Helping solidify the reputation of the SUNY schools are their high graduation rates and frequent appearances on lists of the nation’s best public and best value schools. For example, in 2019, Stony Brook and Binghamton made the top 50 in the Forbes ranking of the best value schools in America.  


The CUNY schools are not without their merits. City College is the oldest of the CUNY campuses and thought of as its flagship school, while Hunter College has been hailed as the “crown jewel” of the CUNY system. Recently, Baruch College was ranked 33rd on Money’s list of best colleges in the U.S., ranked by value—it was the first public or private New York college or university to appear on the list. 


CUNY students looking for more prestigious programs can also apply to the Macaulay Honors College, which is designed to support high-achieving students and is available to students at any CUNY campus.  


6. Student Life


A large percentage of CUNY students are commuters, which can mean long travel times to class and a less collegiate feel for students. This is especially true when compared to the more residential SUNY schools, which deliver a more traditional college feel.


One characteristic that differentiates the two systems is diversity. CUNY has large Hispanic (31%), Black (25%), and Asian (21%) student populations, and 44% of the system’s students are first-generation college students. Diversity isn’t just limited to its students, either—according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, five CUNY campuses have been named among the 10 four-year public institutions with the most diverse managerial staff. 


Enrollment at SUNY is less varied, with white students making up the majority (54%), and smaller percentages of Hispanic/Latino (14.2%), Black/African American (10.7%), and Asian (7.3%) students.  


CUNY Schools


CUNY Baccalaureate Programs



CUNY Community Colleges


  • Borough of Manhattan Community College
  • Bronx Community College
  • Guttman Community College
  • Hostos Community College
  • Kingsborough Community College
  • LaGuardia Community College
  • Queensborough Community College


CUNY Graduate Schools 


  • Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY
  • CUNY Graduate Center
  • CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy
  • CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
  • CUNY School of Professional Studies
  • CUNY School of Law


As mentioned earlier, City College, Hunter, and Baruch have all established reputations for excellence, although all of the schools are reputable for their return on investment. 


For more info, check out our Guide to the CUNY Schools + Complete List

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SUNY Schools


SUNY Baccalaureate Programs



SUNY Community Colleges


  • SUNY Adirondack 
  • SUNY Broome
  • Cayuga Community College
  • Clinton Community College 
  • Columbia-Greene Community College 
  • Corning Community College 
  • Dutchess Community College 
  • SUNY Erie 
  • Fashion Institute of Technology 
  • Finger Lakes Community College
  • Fulton-Montgomery Community College 
  • Genesee Community College 
  • Herkimer County Community College 
  • Hudson Valley Community College 
  • Jamestown Community College 
  • Jefferson Community College 
  • Mohawk Valley Community College 
  • Monroe Community College 
  • Nassau Community College 
  • Niagara County Community College 
  • North Country Community College  
  • Onondaga Community College 
  • Orange County Community College 
  • Rockland Community College 
  • SUNY Schenectady 
  • Suffolk County Community College 
  • Sullivan County Community College 
  • Tompkins Cortland Community College  
  • Ulster County Community College 
  • Westchester Community College 


Each SUNY school is different and some are considered more prestigious than others. Three of the SUNY schools held in highest regard are Binghamton, University of Buffalo, and Stony Brook. Binghamton is known for its D1 athletics, while Stony Brook has a reputation for rigorous academics (both colleges have acceptance rates in the low 40%), while the University of Buffalo is commonly ranked among the best public colleges in the country, as by this Wall Street Journal ranking.  


For more info, check out our Guide to the SUNY Schools + Complete List.



How to Decide Between CUNY and SUNY


When building your college list, how well a college fits your needs and wants is an important consideration. For example, CUNY’s City College has a stellar reputation, but Manhattan is an odd place to be if you’re interested in earning a degree in Forest Research Management (not to mention City College doesn’t offer this degree). Rather, you’d be better off attending a college like the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. 


Why Choose CUNY 


In general, CUNY is good for students with an interest in attending college in the city. Since CUNY caters mostly to commuters, it’s also a good fit for students who are more interested in the academic aspects of college and less interested in the social side. They offer less of what many students think of as the traditional college experience—they don’t have the same campus bubble or college town vibe found at other schools. 


Why Choose SUNY 


SUNY offers a wide variety of options in everything from programs to places, meaning there is a SUNY school for almost every student. The question is not: is a SUNY school right for me? But, which SUNY college is right for me? Students interested in attending a school with a more collegiate feel and who want to live on a college campus will find SUNY schools a good fit. 


Interested in your odds at one of the schools in the CUNY or SUNY system? CollegeVine can help. Our free chancing engine uses a variety of metrics—including GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities—to predict your odds of acceptance at over 600 colleges and universities. You can even use it to explore the differences between schools, helping you find what system, CUNY vs. SUNY, better meets your college expectations.


Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.