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FIT’s costly fees just don’t fit the bill

The Fashion Institute of Technology located on 7th

The Fashion Institute of Technology located on 7th Avenue between 37th and 28th Streets in Manhattan on Feb. 28, 2016 . Credit: John Roca

The Fashion Institute of Technology is one of the top colleges of its kind in the world. It’s a huge asset to the region. But it is not truly a community college. And counties and towns should not be responsible for tuition reimbursement fees when their students attend the school, as with other community colleges.

There are plenty of reasons property tax bills are out of hand. The money local governments send FIT is one example of how it happens.

If a Suffolk resident attends Nassau Community College, Suffolk sends Nassau money to cover some of the cost, and vice versa. In general, that “chargeback” system makes sense, and all the counties and community colleges do it. These schools should be reasonably similar in costs, courses and how many nonresidents attend, so counties should come pretty close to breaking even. The chargeback for Suffolk County Community College is $2,080, which is on the low end. The chargeback for Nassau Community College is $4,010, which is on the high end.

But that’s peanuts compared to FIT. For each non-New York City resident who attends FIT in the 2015-2016 school year, the college is reimbursed $11,540 by the students’ hometown or county.

Not only is the FIT chargeback higher than that for other community colleges, it can go on for far longer. Unlike other community colleges, the state authorized FIT to offer four-year degrees in 1975 and master’s degrees in 1979. And the local governments have to reimburse FIT for those students, too. That means a student who gets a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at FIT can cost taxpayers back home almost $70,000.

On Long Island and elsewhere downstate, the legal battle over FIT chargebacks has been an intramural one among local municipalities and counties. Nassau shifted the burden to its three towns and two cities in 2011. Suffolk did so in 2012. Courts have often ruled that the counties are within their rights and the towns and cities must pay. Yet, the fighting has continued, and Nassau is now seeking reimbursement for charges paid as far back as 2004. Suffolk and Nassau taxpayers pay $14 million annually in FIT chargebacks.

In 1994, the state passed a law saying it would foot the entire bill for the FIT reimbursements, but after 2001 it stopped appropriating the funds. A 2012 SUNY report said it would cost the state $11.2 million per year to live up to this obligationjust for the students enrolled in bachelor and graduate programs. In fact, the state should pay all the FIT chargebacks, or limit them to be in line with other community college county reimbursements.

For years, change has been impossible because the college is part of the interconnected web of powerful people in Albany. Its longtime president, Dr. Joyce Brown, is the wife of SUNY Board Chairman H. Carl McCall. And the city-centric Democrat-controlled Assembly is not inclined to worry about saving pennies for suburban counties.

There are two reasonable solutions. The State Legisalture can live up to its obligation and pay the FIT chargebacks, or it can admit FIT is not a community college and end them. The battles are over whether local governments or counties should be saddled with the expense, but the answer is clearly “neither.” — The editorial board