Legislators challenge plan for separate SUNY tuitions

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A plan to provide millions of additional dollars to Stony Brook and other SUNY research universities by letting the state system charge different tuitions at its campuses is faltering amid politicians' squabbles in Albany.

Gov. David A. Paterson's proposal to give SUNY more autonomy, already in trouble in the State Assembly, this week also ran into unexpected opposition from several senators. Although staffs from Paterson's office and the legislature continue to seek a compromise, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver warned Tuesday that giving greater freedom to SUNY and CUNY schools would fuel "exorbitant" tuition raises without an increase in state TAP grants for low-income students.

Paterson's plan also would allow colleges to form partnerships with businesses and to keep any tuition increases rather than sending the money back to the state's general fund.

Legislators didn't include the proposal in budget bills they passed Monday night. They did approve SUNY and CUNY budgets, including an additional $56.7 million for community college aid and TAP grants, but Paterson vetoed those bills hours later.

In an interview, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher called the idea of charging more at the Stony Brook, Binghamton, Buffalo and Albany campuses "extremely fair."

While some unions and student groups oppose the autonomy plan, it has the backing of the Student Assembly, which represents all 64 campuses. "We believe it will do way more good than bad, especially considering the budget cuts," said president Julie Gondar.

Stony Brook administrators say they already are discussing ways to cut about $30 million more from programs in the coming academic year.

"We need some help," provost Eric Kaler said yesterday, "and the current arrangement has our hands completely tied."

Sen. Brian Foley (D-Blue Point) and several other politicians have suggested allowing Stony Brook and Buffalo to raise tuition and wean themselves from Albany's control. But Silver objected, saying selective tuition hikes at two campuses mean "taking opportunity from children."

Some leading state university systems from North Carolina to Washington state charge differential tuitions. "It's more expensive to operate a research university than to operate a non-research university, so the pattern is for students at research campuses to pay more," said David Shulenburger, a vice president at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

SUNY already lags behind a national trend to give state universities more independence from legislatures, he said. "Generally when budgets are tough, you want to give institutions as much freedom to manage their affairs as possible."

But the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group opposes differential tuition for research universities. "We're fighting to keep college affordable and maintain access for students," said Fran Clark, who monitors education legislation.

With James T. Madore

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