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Legislators and SUNY officials seek "rational" tuition hike

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There's movement in Albany to approve a tuition hike for State University of New York students. But this time, lawmakers and SUNY officials say, they want to do it differently.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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For decades, raising tuition at public college and universities has been one of the third rails of politics. Lawmakers would avoid increasing the costs for college students for years, then, in an act of desperation, usually during a budget crisis, would steeply hike tuition by several hundred dollars or more per year.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said that chaotic approach must change.

Zimpher said she advocates what’s being called "rational" tuition increases. It would raise tuition at a predicable rate of around 5% per year, to keep up with the costs of inflation and other expenses.  Zimpher, along with Presidents of many of the 64 campuses, appeared a at a news conference to promote the measure.

“Our growth strategy depends on rational tuition,” said Zimpher.

A small number of students held signs and heckled the speakers, booing Zimpher’s remarks.  They said they are against the idea of a tuition hike and that administrators’ salaries should be cut instead. 

SUNY trustee Carl McCall, the former State Comptroller, engaged the students after they jeered when he said the additional tuition money would help improve the quality of education.

"I’m so glad our students are here. We’d like to hear from our students," McCall said.

McCall pointed out that the elected student body of SUNY actually helped come up with the plan for measured tuition increases.

"I didn’t vote for them!" one protesting student shouted.

"I didn’t vote for a couple of people either," McCall answered. "But they became President of the United States, you know, that’s what happens."

Angelika Clark, who attends the State University of New York at Albany, says the "rational" tuition plan would cause financial hardship for her.

"I don’t know how I would afford my apartment, how I would be able to afford simple living expenses and textbooks," Clark said. "I think a lot of students feel the same way."

SUNY officials said they would try to make it easier for students to get financial aid grants, scholarships, and extended work study opportunities.

Governor Cuomo said he supports the plan and is pushing for action in the legislature. “That makes a tremendous amount of sense to me,” Cuomo said.

Assembly Democrats have been resistant in the past, but now Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has offered conditional support. In the past, when SUNY tuition was increased, the state would cut its support to the public colleges and universities by the exact same amount raised by the tuition. In the most recent economic recession and budget crisis, SUNY funds were swept to help balance the budget.

Silver said if he were to back the regular tuition increases, all that would have to stop and there’d have to be a "guaranteed commitment" that all of the tuition increases go to the universities.

"We’re not going to balance the state budget on the backs of students," Silver said.

Senate Leader Dean Skelos said he agrees that any tuition increase would have to include a promise that the additional revenue raised would not be raided to balance state budgets.

The legislative leaders and Governor Cuomo said they’ll try to come to agreement over the next couple of weeks, before the legislature adjourns for the summer. 

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