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Area college presidents press for more state funding

SUNY Buffalo State wants to ease its dormitory space crunch by converting two buildings that house offices and classrooms back into dormitories, as they originally were designed. While the college has a plan, it doesn’t have the money.

Rising employee costs and decreasing state support left the SUNY Fredonia with a $60,000 deficit this year.

The University at Buffalo estimates it will need $500 million over the next five years to bring old buildings on South Campus and North Campus up to speed.

And at Erie Community College, which is experiencing declining enrollment, administrators worry they may have to make budget cuts without a significant bump in state aid.

Leaders from community colleges and State University of New York campuses in Western New York urged state legislators Thursday to increase spending on higher education.

The college and university officials pushed for more capital funds, tuition increases and more money for specialized programs such as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which provides counseling and tutoring for students from economically and educationally challenged backgrounds.

The presidents of Buffalo State, Alfred State, Fredonia, Jamestown Community College and Niagara County Community College were joined by SUNY Trustee Eunice A. Lewin at a gathering inside Buffalo State’s new Technology Building.

“We need additional investment from the state,” Lewin said.

SUNY would use the money from a proposed $50 million investment fund to improve coordination between high school advisers and colleges and universities; create more applied learning opportunities on campuses; and implement a “Finish in Four” graduation guarantee across SUNY campuses statewide, she said.

Virginia Horvath, president of Fredonia, noted the state’s investment in SUNY doesn’t come close to matching the investment it made decades ago when she was a young student herself at the University at Buffalo. When Horvath arrived at Fredonia as vice president of academic affairs at Fredonia in 2005, the state contributed about 24 percent of the college’s overall budget. This year, the state’s contribution is less than 12 percent.

The ability to raise tuition – through the NYSUNY 2020 legislation that SUNY officials are lobbying to continue – merely enabled the college to pay for salary increases that had been negotiated at the state level, she said. Otherwise, the college would have faced a $2 million deficit.

“It’s helped, but it doesn’t push us ahead,” Horvath said.

If legislators don’t want tuition to keep rising, they should simply invest more heavily in the operations of the SUNY campuses, Horvath said.

Most people don’t understand that state funding covers just a fraction of the budgets of higher education institutions, said Katherine Conway-Turner, president of Buffalo State.

“They often think, ‘You’re a state institution. They give you everything,’ ” she said.

The percentage of Buffalo State’s budget covered by the state has dipped to $24.7 million in 2013-14 from $35.9 million in 2007-08.

Buffalo State had its own budget difficulties two years ago, prior to Conway-Turner’s arrival on campus, and the college took steps then to cut back.

It still has big needs, including the residence halls, a heating system that needs upgrades estimated at $35 million, and a desire to expand EOP, one of its most successful programs.