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Students support modest cost hikes In Buffalo, feeling on tuition is mixed

Paying more for college doesn't usually sit well with students.

But guess who's endorsing a tuition hike now?

A student delegation representing the more than 427,000 students in the State University of New York system has backed a controversial plan for modest annual tuition increases.

The Student Assembly, meeting last weekend in Syracuse, passed a resolution supporting a "rational" tuition policy for SUNY, which is facing the largest budget cut in its history.

"We're not saying we want a higher tuition," said David Belsky, a University at Albany student, who serves as director of communications for the Student Assembly. "What we are saying is we understand it's time for a tuition hike, and if there has to be one, it has to be rational and predictable."

As it is now, the SUNY board of trustees sets and raises tuition with the approval of the governor and State Legislature.

But traditionally that has meant a large tuition hike every several years, or more, when the political climate is deemed palatable in Albany.

In 2003, for example, annual tuition for in-state, undergraduate students went up $950 a year, or 28 percent, to the current price of $4,350. Prior to that the last increase was in 1995.

Meanwhile, a policy of modest annual increases -- tied to a cost-of-living index -- has long been proposed by SUNY administrators and campus presidents to give campuses more financial certainty.

But an endorsement for such a plan is unusual coming from students and is actually the first time the Student Assembly has recognized the need to pay more.

Students at the University at Buffalo have mixed feelings about a rational tuition policy, said Peter Grollitsch, president of UB's Undergraduate Student Association and a delegate to the Student Assembly.

But, he said, students also don't want their quality of education to deteriorate.

He pointed out that state funding for SUNY could be slashed as much as $210 million this year to help cope with New York's tough economic times.

"No one is ever happy about a tuition increase," Grollitsch said, "but given the situation we're in right now, this makes sense."

Not everyone agrees, though.

The proposal passed the Student Assembly, 50-10. Three of those "no" votes were cast by assembly delegates from Buffalo State College, who would anticipate annual increases of 2 to 4 percent with the approval of a rational tuition policy.

"We basically have a higher percentage of lower-income and first-generation students at Buffalo State," said Dominique Gabriel, president of the United Students Government at Buffalo State. "I am concerned with the impact of the increase on the students, given there's no increase in financial aid."

She's also worried revenue from the tuition increases would go into Albany coffers, instead of funding campuses.

"There's no guarantee," Gabriel said.

Right now, state leaders aren't talking publicly about any kind of tuition hike for next year -- rational or otherwise.

However, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, D-Buffalo, is confident SUNY will request a tuition increase, given the budget cuts it's facing.

But Peoples -- who is a supporter of a rational tuition policy -- also believes these kinds of endorsements from student groups, like the Student Assembly, could help sway lawmakers to back a rational tuition policy.

"I would hope so," Peoples said. "The whole reason there has been so much opposition to allowing [a rational tuition policy] has been in the interest of students."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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