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ONE CUOMO proposal the Legislature should resist in the current budget negotiations is the plan to cut assistance to college students who need financial help. But it should increase substantially the tuition charged to those who attend both the state and New York city public universities.

Gov. Cuomo wants to reduce payments to all but the poorest of Tuition Assistance Program recipients by $100 between now and the end of the state's fiscal year on March 31. That's about a 14 percent reduction.

But TAP grants go to students in financial need -- at both private and state schools. They, struggling to get an education, should not bear a burden for closing the general budget shortfall -- especially when affluent students are getting a good education in state institutions at a price that amounts to a steal.

Phenomenally low tuitions are charged to in-state students attending both the State University of New York ($1,350 a year, plus a mandated $25 fee) and the City University of New York ($1,250 a year).

Tuition hasn't been changed in seven years, and tuition levels have become an indefensibly sacred political cow. Raising them now makes a lot more sense than slamming struggling families or gutting SUNY's services to meet the budget crisis.

Inflation has trimmed the real value of SUNY's $1,375 tuition-fee cost established in 1983 to $1,063. In after-inflation terms, students and parents today have gotten a tuition decrease. They pay only 75 percent of what students and parents paid to SUNY schools like Buffalo State College and the University at Buffalo seven years ago.

SUNY'S $1,375 tuition and mandatory fee today would have to be increased to $1,779 just to equal what they were in real purchasing power seven years ago.

Albany could boost SUNY tuition by $400 a year tomorrow and still barely match the real tuition charges approved by state leaders for 1983.

As long as TAP grants, also cheapened by inflation, are kept generous enough to do their job well, higher tuitions at the city and state university systems will not blight the educational opportunities of the most economically disadvantaged students.

Other students and parents can and should pay for tuition increases. Right now, in its special session, the Legislature ought to increase tuition for the next semester by $150, as SUNY officials urge. For the longer term, tuition ought to be raised at least $500 in the next legislative session. They could well go higher. Even a $500 rise would barely take tuition beyond the 1983 figure in real dollars and would keep it far below that for public universities in many other states.

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