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Families get tuition help Pressure in Senate pays off in renewal of college tax deduction

Families who have gained some financial relief from a federal college tuition tax credit in the past now have a brighter future. Congress last weekend passed legislation Sen. Charles E. Schumer has been backing for years in an attempt to help ease the tuition burden for middle-class families.

That tax relief was allowed to expire last year. Its temporary renewal is a victory, and Schumer's efforts to expand and make this two-year legislation permanent also deserve to succeed.

New York's senior senator sought to restore a $4,000 college tuition deduction that had been used by 102,000 upstate families. He also is interested in expanding the measure to make as much as $12,000 in tuition costs deductible.

The two-year extension occurred just in time. The Republican-controlled Congress had allowed the measure to expire, but November's elections changed the calculus. Had this renewal bill not passed, households would not have been able to use the tuition deduction again in April. Schumer personally lobbied Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to bring the legislation to the Senate floor during the current lame-duck session.

These days, a college degree is required in order to compete individually, and nations need college-educated workers to compete in a global landscape. Families should have help in meeting funding challenges for their children's continued education.

The college tuition tax deduction became law in 2001, and was based on bipartisan legislation written by Schumer. Originally, it allowed middle-class families to deduct $3,000 per year on their tax returns. That was raised to $4,000 per year in 2004.

In May, language extending the tax break for another three years was eliminated from the tax reconciliation bill in favor of restoring $5 billion worth of tax breaks for the major oil companies. In legislation passed over the weekend, Congress renewed the lapsed tax break for 2006 and extended it through the end of 2007.

According to Schumer's office, 18,707 families in Western New York took advantage of the college tuition tax deduction in 2003. The deduction renewal bill is timely -- over the past five years the average price of attending college in Western New York increased by 35 percent, taking it from $8,596 in 2001 to $11,584 in 2006.

The trustees of the State University of New York system now have requested a tuition increase of about 4 percent at most SUNY campuses by the fall of 2008.

That hike makes sense. It's part of an overall effort to substitute more frequent but predictable, smaller and manageable increases for the traditional practice of infrequent but punishingly large increases, which would not only help the university system match constantly rising costs and consider improvements and expansion, but also give students and their families a more reliable handle on the costs they face for a multiyear college education.

However, it would help ease the additional burdens if the increase could be offset for students and their families by a larger tax credit. College educations deserve governmental help, to keep them affordable for as wide an economic range of families and students as possible. That's not only fair for an equal-rights democracy and a boost for individual achievement, it's in the national interest in a global marketplace. Schumer deserves credit for this victory, but he and others in Congress still need to make sure this assistance doesn't come close to lapsing again.

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