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Fiscal cliff would paralyze higher education in U.S.

By Nancy Zimpher and Jack Quinn

Without decisive action, the looming fiscal cliff, or sequestration of the federal budget, would quite literally paralyze higher education in the United States and have a serious effect on our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy of the 21st century.

Nearly half a million students are enrolled at SUNY’s 64 campuses, working toward degrees that serve the most pressing workforce needs here and nationally. Congress has until Jan. 2 to avoid more than $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts to higher education – cuts that mean devastating reductions in our college classrooms and laboratories, and to the programs that enable us to train the workforce of tomorrow.

SUNY-wide, sequestration threatens to eliminate nearly $50 million in research funding, greatly hindering the opportunity for further advancements in health, smart energy and innovation. It will set New York back, and the SUNY system back, and our community college sector will be especially hard hit.

With rising college costs and the increasing call on high school graduates to enter some kind of post-graduation career training, community colleges need optimal resources in order to educate and train a forthcoming workforce, and to enhance and support their host communities. The nationally recognized ability of Erie Community College and others like it across New York to deliver this vital education would be severely hindered by the budgetary implications of sequestration.

Take the Perkins IV Grant, for example. Each year since 2007, this grant has awarded ECC millions to fund programs in growing fields like biomanufacturing, industrial technology and mechanical engineering technology.

The grant has been a principle source of federal funding to states for the improvement of secondary, postsecondary career and technical education programs, helping institutions like ECC augment their level of operation, as well as enhance training available to the students these colleges usher into the local workforce. Slashing educational funding would severely affect ECC’s ability to train the next generation of students in emerging vocations essential not only to the U.S. economy, but to the evolving economy of Western New York.

As a nation, we cannot afford to reduce federal investment in higher education. Just as SUNY helps drive New York, the nation’s colleges and universities in every sector are critical to the country’s future economy. As President Obama said following his victory earlier this month, “our universities are the envy of the world.”

We could not agree more, and strongly urge Congress and the president to work together to keep higher education, and America, from going over the fiscal cliff.

Nancy Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York. Jack Quinn is president of Erie Community College.