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New York State puts weight of SUNY funding on students

SUNY chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher on April 23,

SUNY chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher on April 23, 2010. Credit: Ed Betz

The State University of New York says it offers the most affordable system of higher education in the Northeast. It's a potent boast. And students are getting more bang for their bucks as SUNY schools, led by such institutions as Stony Brook University, grow in quality and stature.

But the state has failed to match SUNY's commitment to excellence. It agreed four years ago to a schedule of yearly tuition increases capped at $300 each, which gave schools predictable revenue growth and students a better idea of costs. It worked and New York should continue this tuition plan for another five years; we cannot return to the chaos of large and unpredictable tuition hikes that the state used to balance its budget.

Unfortunately, the state has kept its own funding for SUNY flat, after four years of big cuts. It's time to reverse that trend. Eight years ago, tuition and direct state support for SUNY were virtually identical. Now the split is 70 percent to 30 percent, with students bearing the heavier load. Funding from Albany is down $329 million from its high of more than $1 billion. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher's request of an increase of $50 million per year for five years is reasonable. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo only wants to throw $18 million into the pot.

More money would help Zimpher make good on her bold promise to increase the number of SUNY graduates from 93,000 per year to 150,000 by 2020 -- by expanding strategies that have worked on some campuses to keep students from dropping out. They include better advising, math remediation classes and a guarantee that SUNY will pay for required classes if they're not available when needed.

For generations of New Yorkers, education has been the pathway to success. And a state that says it seeks strong returns on investment can do no better than to invest in its own citizens. Give SUNY the money it needs to keep getting stronger.