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March 12, 2011

Predictable tuition would help students and SUNY


By Nancy Kleniewski Candace Vancko

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As New York's financial downturn persists, its impact on municipalities, health care, public schools and higher education becomes more dramatic. While our elected leaders contend with a sour economy and an $11 billion deficit, they also must move our state toward long-term recovery.

Although difficult decisions lie ahead, the importance of funding for public higher education remains undiminished. For the 468,000 students enrolled at our 64 campuses, the State University of New York is an incredible value. In fact, tuition at our four-year schools is the lowest among state universities in the Northeast and in the bottom quartile nationwide. SUNY clearly is a sound investment.

Beyond the sheer scope of offerings system-wide and the variety of experiences we provide to students, SUNY campuses also make unique and enduring contributions in every corner of our state. Consider NASA's Ron Garan, a SUNY Oneonta alumnus who recently spoke to an audience of 600 fifth- through eighth-graders from local schools about his upcoming International Space Station mission. His pre-flight conference, beamed to SUNY Oneonta from Houston's Johnson Space Center, literally gave these young people the chance to talk with an astronaut and be inspired by his example.

SUNY Delhi is having a major impact on the quality of health care, offering the only online RN-to-BSN program in New York State. This innovative program, developed in response to the critical shortage of registered nurses, now serves over 300 students from across the Empire State. It is also earning state and national recognition for educational quality and its contributions to advancing the nursing profession.

While we believe SUNY is poised to lead the way to a better life for all New Yorkers, Albany's message is unclear. On one hand, our strategic plan's central idea -- that SUNY will propel the state's resurgence -- has been greeted enthusiastically. On the other hand, public colleges across the state are struggling with the effects of the $1.1 billion in decreases to our system's operating budget since 2008. Looking ahead, this year's executive budget proposes to drain $362 million more.

Locally, SUNY Oneonta has lost more than a third of its base state support in the last three years. At SUNY Delhi, the current level of state funding is lower than it was in 2001 when the college enrolled 1,100 fewer students.

We accept that the state's budgetary hardship will continue to impact our campuses. Unfortunately, this is not the only challenge we face. The higher education price index -- which tracks changes in costs for college and universities much as the consumer price index measures family purchasing power -- has risen by about 5 percent annually in recent years. In plain language, our costs continue to climb, just as they do in other industries.

If adopted, the executive budget will reduce public support for the university system by about 10 percent while holding tuition flat. Such a strategy is not sustainable. It leads to tuition spikes that hurt students the most. For example, after only one increase in more than a decade, the legislature raised tuition 14 percent in 2009. Students and their families never saw it coming.

What SUNY seeks now from Albany is greater stability in the form of a predictable tuition model. It's unfair to leave students and their families to wonder each year if legislative reaction to the state's deficit will force them to revisit their own budgets. They ought to be able to plan for the costs of college.

The alternative -- "tuition roulette" and the sustained decline in state support for public higher education -- has presented increasingly urgent challenges at Delhi, Oneonta and across SUNY. Reckoning with deep cuts each fall siphons energy from our overarching goal of leading New York's revitalization.

Our state faces perhaps an unprecedented challenge, and we understand that the state cannot continue to support SUNY with tax dollars at the same level as in the past. We envision SUNY being part of the solution, and we urge you to call upon our legislators to support a rational tuition plan that will help avoid the erosion of our state university and allow us to focus on creating a brighter future for our students and our state.

Nancy Kleniewski is president of SUNY Oneonta. Candace Vancko is president of SUNY Delhi.