CUNY vs SUNY: What’s the Difference?

by | Dec 23, 2021

by Prepscolar

Thinking about attending a SUNY or CUNY school but aren’t sure where to start or even what the differences between the two are? We’re here to help! See how they compare across different areas such as academics, cost, and student life.

What Are SUNY Schools?

SUNY (pronounced “soo-nee”) stands for the State University of New York, and it’s the largest public university system in the United States. Roughly 400,000 students are enrolled in credit-bearing courses, and an additional 2.1 million students are enrolled in non-credit continuing education and community outreach programs. SUNY also has a large online course offering, called Open SUNY, with nearly 200,000 students taking online classes through it per year.

SUNY was established in 1948 as a way to provide an affordable college education to students of New York, and it today includes 64 institutions. These schools fall into five groups: university centers, doctoral-granting institutions, comprehensive colleges, technology colleges, and community colleges. For undergraduates, the university centers are typically considered the most rigorous schools, as well as the most difficult to get into. They have acceptance rates ranging from about 40% to 55%. Here are the SUNY schools:

University Centers

  • University at Albany
  • Binghamton University
  • University at Buffalo
  • Stony Brook University

Comprehensive Colleges

  • Buffalo State College
  • The College at Brockport
  • SUNY Cortland
  • SUNY Empire State College
  • SUNY Fredonia
  • SUNY Geneseo
  • Purchase College
  • SUNY New Paltz
  • SUNY Old Westbury
  • SUNY Oneonta
  • SUNY Oswego
  • SUNY Plattsburgh
  • SUNY Potsdam

Technology Colleges

  • Alfred State College
  • SUNY Canton
  • SUNY Cobleskill
  • SUNY Delhi
  • Farmingdale State College
  • Fashion Institute of Technology
  • SUNY Maritime College
  • SUNY Morrisville

Community Colleges (many!) but we are focusing today on 4-year schools.

What Are CUNY Schools?

CUNY (pronounced “Q-nee”) stands for the City University of New York, which is a system of public colleges in New York City. CUNY’s mission is to provide students with a high-quality education at an affordable price. CUNY includes both four-year colleges and community colleges. In total, the CUNY system offers more than 1,750 degree programs and 1,800 clubs.

CUNY schools range in competitiveness, with some having open admissions (where all applicants are accepted) to some four-years schools having acceptance rates below 40%.

Roughly 275,000 students attend a CUNY school on either a full-time or part-time basis, and the CUNY system is the largest comprehensive university system in the United States. It also has one of the most diverse student bodies in the country. CUNY consists of 25 undergraduate and graduate schools, located in all five boroughs.

Four-Year Colleges

  • Baruch College
  • Brooklyn College
  • College of Staten Island
  • Hunter College
  • John Jay College of Criminal Justice
  • Lehman College
  • Medgar Evers College
  • New York City College of Technology
  • Queens College
  • The City College of New York
  • York College
CUNY vs SUNY Schools

Both CUNY and SUNY schools are known for strong academics, accomplished faculty, lower tuition costs, and strong financial aid. But what are the differences between the two? Below is a chart comparing CUNY vs SUNY schools on a variety of factors. We discuss the key factors below.

Location5 boroughs of New York CityThroughout New York state
Number of schools2564
Number of degree programs1,7507,660
Total undergrad student enrollment241,080350,889
Total graduate student enrollment30,16243,331
Estimate enrollment of largest and smallest 4-year schools
Largest: about 23,000 students
Smallest: about 6,000 students
Largest: 31,500 students
Smallest: 3,500 students
Estimated enrollment of largest and smallest community colleges
Largest: 26,000 students
Smallest: 1,000 students
Largest: 26,000 students
Smallest: 1,700 students
Graduation rate for students in 4 year programs
53% six-year graduation rate
30% four-year graduation rate
69% six-year graduation rate
55% four-year graduation rate
Gender ratio
56.9% female
43.1% male
56.2% female
43.8% male
Ethnicity breakdown
21% Asian
0.2% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander
25% Black
31% Latino
0.1% Native American
23% White
7% Asian/Pacific Islander
11% Black
14% Latino
0.5% American Indian/Alaska Native
54% White
Commuter schools?Most areSome are
In-state tuition (for four-year colleges)$6,930 per year (four-year colleges)

$4,800 per year (community colleges)

$7,070 per year (four-year colleges)

$5,020 per year (community colleges)

Out-of-state tuition (for four-year colleges)$18,600 per year$16,980 per year
FundingFrom both NYC and New York stateFrom New York state
Academic Reputation

You can receive an excellent education at both SUNY and CUNY schools as long as you’re ready to put in the work. However, SUNY schools do generally have a stronger academic reputation, particularly the university center schools. There are excpetions to this rule!

On average, SUNY schools are more difficult to get into than CUNY schools, and only CUNY has schools with open admissions policies. Additionally, SUNY has a higher average graduation rate compared to CUNY (69% compared to 53%), and higher graduation rates can sometimes indicate the students at that school are better prepared to succeed in college.

However, reputation can also vary widely depending on what field you want to study, so if you have an idea of what you want to major in, it’s a good idea to research that specific major at the schools you’re interested in.


Both SUNY and CUNY schools are located in New York, but CUNY schools are located only within New York City, while SUNY schools are located throughout the state (as well as Jamestown Community College, which is in Pennsylvania).

If you want to live in New York City, CUNY has schools in each of the city’s five boroughs. There are a few SUNY schools in NYC, including SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University and the Fashion Institute of Technology, but the vast majority of its schools are located outside of NYC.


Both SUNY and CUNY schools pride themselves on being affordable higher education options for New York students. For in-state students, tuition for four-year programs at both schools is roughly $7,000 a year, which is lower than the average cost of two-thirds of public colleges in the United States.

Additional funding from the state (for SUNY) and the city and state (for CUNY) provides scholarships to many students that lower the cost even more. The average net cost for a CUNY student is $4,000 to $6,000 per year, and because many CUNY students are commuters, they don’t have to pay room and board either. Net costs for SUNY, while still more affordable than the majority of other public colleges, vary more depending on which school you attend, and some have requirements that freshmen must live on campus. However, tuition is lower at SUNY for out-of-state students.

Additionally, under an agreement signed in 2017, students whose families make less than $125,000 a year will have tuition waived at SUNY and CUNY schools. The program is known as the Excelsior Scholarship, and it does require you to stay and work in New York State after your scholarship for the amount of time for which you received your tuition award.

School Types

SUNY has nearly three times the number of schools as CUNY, and, as such, has a wider array of school and program types. While both schools have traditional four-year schools and community colleges, SUNY has a wider variety of schools and degree offerings. There are also many more options for graduate degree programs at SUNY compared to CUNY. While both CUNY and SUNY offer a wide range of degree programs for undergraduates, those looking for something more specialized may find the program at SUNY, but not CUNY.

Student Body

There isn’t a whole lot of difference between CUNY and SUNY student body makeup. Both have diverse student bodies, as well as many students who come from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves, as well as students who are the first in their families to attend college. Additionally, roughly 90% of the student body at both SUNY and CUNY are in-state students from New York.

Student Experience

You can have vastly different college experiences depending on which of the SUNY or CUNY schools you decide to attend, however there are some general trends to be aware of.

Most CUNY students are commuters, and this means both you could spend a long time getting to class each day (CUNY commutes are notoriously long) and have less of a traditional college experience because few students live together in dorms.

School sizes for both SUNY and CUNY range from just over 1,000 students to well over 10,000 students, although SUNY’s biggest four-year school, University at Buffalo, has nearly three times as many students as CUNY’s largest four-year school. Both also have a wide variety of student clubs and activities to help students feel more a part of the school.

Questions? Let’s chat!

Bettina Weil

Weil College Advising, LLC


Weil College Advising

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