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SUNY legislation not in students' best interests

New York State law states that "The mission of the state university system shall be to provide the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs "

The mission further states that the university should establish " tuition which most effectively promotes the university's access goals "

The Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act -- the reforms to the SUNY system that Gov. David A. Paterson included in his 2010-11 budget proposal -- is contrary to the state university's mission. It will not offer quality education for all segments of the population, and tuition will become more unaffordable for the low-income populace.

The governor's plan, which opens the door to the privatization of SUNY, refers to the proposal as a "zero cost solution" to higher education. Zero cost to whom? We submit that there is no such thing as a free lunch. SUNY must still meet its financial obligations.

The burden of operating SUNY would fall upon students and their families. Supporters of this change argue that it would create a rational tuition policy. This "rational" tuition policy enables the university to raise tuition 2.5 times the five-year rolling Higher Education Price Index each year. The index gauges the cost of higher education. The most recent five-year index is almost 3.5. Thus, SUNY could raise tuition 9 percent each year (3.5 x 2.5) resulting in a 36 percent increase during a four-year undergraduate experience.

We're not done yet. The governor's proposal also gives each campus the authority to institute a "differential tuition increase" for specific programs. The differential increases can be any amount the campus deems appropriate. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher recently released her SUNY Strategic Plan, "The Power of SUNY," in which she says the university's 64 campuses ought to work as an integrated system. Differential tuition defeats that worthy objective.

New Yorkers deserve a public university system that fulfills SUNY's mission. The types of tuition increases this legislation permits harm those who need a public university system the most. Underprivileged students and those from middle-class families either will pay a much steeper price for their education or will be unable to afford higher education.

A recent fact sheet distributed by SUNY, "SUNY Fast Facts 2009" states that "For every state dollar received, SUNY generates $8 in total spending" in New York State. SUNY has the potential of being an engine that helps drive New York's economy. Realization of that potential requires state investment in an affordable public higher education system.

Edward Herman is chairman of the United University Professions Advocacy Committee at the University at Buffalo and is writing on the committee's behalf.

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