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SUNY must adopt annual tuition increases

For students at the State University of New York and their families, a worst-case scenario is looming and becoming more likely every day: A massive spike in tuition resulting from years of neglect that finally ends in action deemed necessary to support a weakened public higher education system.

It's almost predictable: The Legislature, fearing political fallout, fails to raise tuition year after year, while cutting state support so dramatically that SUNY's mission is compromised. Then, when things get so bad, it "saves" SUNY with a big tuition increase.

There is a better way, one that has been endorsed by the SUNY Student Assembly and by local campuses across the state: a tuition plan that allows for fair, predictable increases annually so SUNY can grow and thrive, and students and their families can plan ahead.

SUNY students advocating for a plan that would result in any kind of tuition increase may come as a surprise to some, but not if you have paid attention to what has been happening on our campuses.

In the wake of $1.1 billion in cuts over the last three years, campuses have been forced to phase out programs. Geneseo eliminated its communication disorders program, New Paltz cut its nursing program and Albany scaled back several languages. With the cuts proposed this year, SUNY will have to absorb nearly $400 million more in cuts, for a four-year total negative impact of $1.5 billion. That means even more cutbacks on campuses.

Simply put, keeping tuition at the current level is just not sustainable, and does not support access and affordability in the long term. That's why, for more than three years now, the Student Assembly has proposed a rational tuition policy that would ensure annual, predictable increases that are fair, equitable and responsible.

Unfortunately, the State Legislature has been slow to take up this issue. We understand lawmakers' concern about pricing students out of the system. But layering more cuts on top of the previous three years goes against New York's pledge to provide access to quality education. And if we don't adopt a sensible tuition plan, pricing students out of the system won't even be an issue if they can't find the programs they want in the SUNY system.

We remain hopeful the Legislature and the governor will recognize that there is a better way forward. SUNY can and must be an economic engine for the state and help create good jobs that will allow students to stay here after graduation. But this vision won't happen by accident; it requires forward thinking that includes a focus on tuition.

There is more to do, clearly. We must restore the massive budget cuts, repeal Bundy Aid (state taxpayer money for private universities), implement sensible procurement reform and develop plans to engage county legislatures to meet their financial commitments on behalf of community colleges.

But by leaving tuition unchanged, students are destined to enter yet another cycle with years of stagnation followed by unmanageable, harsh increases to compensate for the irresponsible past. A fair and predictable tuition plan is a rational way of thinking, and a critical safety net for the protection of students and their families.

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Julie Gondar is president of the Student Assembly of the State University of New York, elected by student representatives from all 64 campuses in the SUNY system.

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