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Faculty unions, interest group urge bigger state share in covering SUNY costs

To afford being a full-time student at SUNY Buffalo State, Naima Arbaoui works two part-time jobs. So with tuition and other costs rising again this fall, the junior from Brooklyn is now looking for a third job to make ends meet.

“Paying to go to Buff State is extremely difficult for me right now,” said Arbaoui, who studies anthropology. “I work almost every day.”

Tuition and fees at Buffalo State are $7,669 for 2015-16, up 27 percent from five years ago, when the State University of New York introduced a “rational” tuition policy for its 29 state-operated campuses. Due to annual tuition and fee hikes under the policy – a key element of the NYSUNY 2020 law adopted in 2011 – students like Arbaoui now pay nearly 64 percent of what it costs to fund the operations of SUNY, while state tax dollars provide about 36 percent. Critics say those numbers are out of whack, with the state shifting too much of the burden of paying for public higher education onto students. Tuition and fees, they pointed out, covered 42 percent of SUNY costs in 2008-09.

Students, including Arbaoui, were joined Wednesday by a statewide public interest group, leaders of two faculty unions, and members of the state Senate and Assembly in urging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to restore a bigger share of state money into the SUNY funding equation. They called on Cuomo to sign a bill that would require the state to pay for inflationary expenses at SUNY and City University of New York campus, including increased utility costs and negotiated pay raises and fringe benefits.

Many of the state’s public colleges and universities have been using the tuition increases to keep pace with the rising costs of operating campuses, which was not the intent of the NYSUNY 2020 legislation, said Jamie F. Dangler, vice president for academic of United University Professions, which represents more than 17,000 active members. Any increases in student tuition “should be funding student programs, classes, support services, advising, those sorts of things, which was the promise of SUNY 2020,” said Dangler. “Our primary point is student tuition dollars should be used to enhance the quality of what is offered to students.”

SUNY has raised tuition by $300 a year since 2011 as part of its tuition plan, which was designed to help the system’s campuses bring predictability for students and parents.

In the past, SUNY colleges and universities were at the mercy of the state budget process, which often meant big spikes in tuition depending on the political winds in Albany.

NYSUNY 2020 took tuition out of the state budgeting process, but the plan expires after the next academic year. It’s unclear whether the Legislature will adopt something similar for beyond 2016. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has urged legislators to extend NYSUNY 2020 and predictable tuition beyond 2016.

In June, the Assembly and Senate approved a bill to get the state to pay for ongoing operational costs at SUNY. The bill does not directly address whether the “rational” tuition policy would be extended.

The bill would cost the state an additional $32 million in the 2016-17 budget, according to the United University Professions.

“This is the time to plan for funding. We think this should be a huge priority in the state,” said Dangler, joined at the University at Buffalo by state Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-Lockport, Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter, R-Amherst and several other speakers.

A call and an email to the governor’s press office Wednesday afternoon were not returned.