ContributedState Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, speaks on the West Capitol steps during a media conference Thursday calling for passage of legislation to set a rational tuition policy for SUNY. SUNY presidents and represenatives stand behind him.

SUNY presidents and top administrators joined two politicians Thursday to support a bill that would allow tuition increases of up to 5.5 percent in each of the next five years.

The proposed bill also would prevent tuition revenues from being swept by the state into its general operating fund, thus protecting the SUNY system and campuses from budget cuts.

The idea of establishing a "rational tuition plan" isn't new, but the effort has gained momentum through a bill sponsored by state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, with a bill in the Assembly by Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.

The legislators, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, and other SUNY representatives held a media conference in Albany on Thursday to urge passage of the plan.

"SUNY needs a rational tuition policy, and we need it now," Zimpher said. She commended Seward and Peoples-Stokes for presenting a "fair and responsible plan that ensures continued affordability, access and quality for public higher education in New York.

"A rational tuition policy would be good for students and good for the campuses," Seward said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Nancy Kleniewski, president of the State University College at Oneonta, and Candace Vancko, president of the State University College of Technology at Delhi, were at the media conference.

Seward said representatives from the State University College of Agriculture and Technology also were present.

According to a media release, the legislation (S.4709/A.6915) would:

"¢ Allow the SUNY Board of Trustees to set annual tuition, provided that it does not increase by more than 5.5 percent per year, for each of the next five years.

"¢ Repeal a section of Education Law, thereby eliminating the tuition sweep from 2009-10 and returning the full amount of the funds swept back to SUNY.

"¢ Place state support received, and tuition and fees charged by SUNY in an account, whereby tuition and fees would be separated from other general funds.

"¢ Prohibit the use of incremental increases in tuition to backfill cuts in state support for SUNY by requiring New York to fund SUNY to at least an established baseline year, plus some additional funding to cover mandatory costs.

If approved the bill would go into effect July 1. The Legislature is scheduled to close this year's session June 20.

The SUNY Board of Trustees decides on tuition increases, Seward said, and it remains to be seen if an increase would be considered for 2011-12.

Currently, resident undergraduate tuition at SUNY is $4,970. Even with tuition increases supported by this legislation, SUNY would continue to be the least-expensive public institution in New England and the mid-Atlantic states and among the lowest in the nation, a media release said.

Over the last 48 years, SUNY has raised tuition 13 times. The smallest tuition increase at $319 was 7 percent in 2009-10. The largest increase at $650 was 43 percent in 1991-92. Seventeen times since 1963, a first-year student entered SUNY and, during his or her college career, never had to pay a tuition increase while other students saw two or three increases.

In the past three years, the state has cut $1.4 billion from SUNY, resulting in fewer course sections, bigger classes and more adjunct faculty replacing departed full-time faculty at many campuses, the release said.

Evan Englander, president of the Student Association at SUNY Oneonta, said students, faculty and staff at the local campus generally support a rational tuition policy and a measure to ensure tuition revenues reach SUNY campuses. The statewide SUNY Student Assembly passed a resolution in the past semester supporting the concepts, he said, which would be "great" for SUNY students and the system.

Gradual tuition increases are more manageable than a one-time hike of 10 percent, for instance, said Englander, 21, a senior studying mass communications and advertising. A rational tuition policy would enable students and their families to plan for education costs.

"It comes down to being realistic," he said. "Everything is expensive _ costs are going up."

Seward said he is "cautiously optimistic" his bill or provisions within it will become law this year. SUNY has been in the spotlight regarding economic impact, Seward said, and provisions in his bill could be included in a larger bill addressing the future of SUNY.

SUNY is the largest comprehensive university system in the United States, the release said, and the system educates more than 467,000 students in more than 7,500 programs on 64 campuses and has nearly 3 million alumni around the globe.

Seward, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee for 25 years, represents District 51, which has a large SUNY presence, including colleges in Oneonta, Delhi, Cobleskill, Cortland and three community colleges. After being approached about a month ago, Seward said, he agreed to work up the Senate bill, which has been reported out of the Higher Education Committee and is in the Finance Committee.

Peoples-Stokes said the legislation is a step toward mitigating a threat of diminishing access across the SUNY system and the negative impact of recent austerity measures.

"Giving families the opportunity to adequately prepare and plan for the students' higher education is of critical importance," she said in the release, "along with giving SUNY the flexibility to meet those needs."

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