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Aid rising as tuition soars

If you are currently paying college tuition, you already have been alerted or soon will be that another increase shortly will be in place. Don't get too angry or upset. It's happening in colleges or universities throughout the nation. It's part of a national trend. Those institutions that have already increased their tuition and fees have for the most part been surprised and happy with the results.

Colleges have found that many families associate price with quality and that a tuition increase can attract more applicants and therefore more revenue. A significant factor has been the practice of these institutions to also increase the dollars available for financial aid to students.

The College Board, which tracks these numbers throughout the country, says the average tuition at four-year colleges rose 81 percent from 1993 to 2004, double the rate of inflation, but financial aid rose 135 percent, offsetting the tuition hikes to a large degree.

The board also reported that 73 percent of undergraduates at four-year private institutions received some form of financial aid in the school year of 2004. This aid in many cases comes from the institution itself and/or the federal government.

The nation's institutions of higher learning are in a competitive race to attract students with high grades and excellent results in the standardized tests. These students help a college in ranking guides such as the one produced by U.S. News and World Report.

All this sounds fine, but the negative is that some students, unaware of the aid possibilities, will not seek entry to the college they really would like to attend because of the tuition-fee factor. Many of these students in New York State likely will turn to one of the colleges in the State University of New York system. But while these institutions are significantly less expensive than most in the nation, they are still beyond the means of many less affluent families.

SUNY tuition currently is $4,350 a year, but fees push the average to more than $5,000 a year. I recall vividly that when I graduated from high school in New York City in the 1940s, I enrolled at Brooklyn College, which was tuition free. This was in the days before the establishment of the SUNY system. There were only a few fees to pay for certain science courses. Entrance to Brooklyn College, City College of New York and Queens College was a free pass for those from the less affluent families in the city. The only requirement was an above-average high school grade average.

Of course, it was a far different time, and college cost has significantly increased over the years. Tuition at SUNY institutions is targeted to increase by about 4 percent in the next school year, and SUNY has a long-range plan that would automatically increase tuition every four years for most students. The rate of annual increases would be pegged to a so-called "higher education cost index" that hopefully would be around 4 percent a year.

This proposal is controversial and has not yet been approved, but its proponents say it would avoid the politically unpopular tuition increases after continuing years of no tuition raises. Currently the SUNY board, the governor and the Legislature are involved in setting tuition rates.

It's interesting to note that colleges and universities watch one another and tend to act like traditional businesses such as grocery chains. These schools don't want to charge significantly less tuition then others they consider their equals in reputation. Nor do they want to lead the pack. Let's face it: Colleges and universities are businesses and must remain competitive in course offerings, faculty and physical facilities with only tuition and endowment levels to offset all costs.

Murray Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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