Suffolk County Community College has a good story to tell. But it's being lost right now in the annual wrangling with the county over the college's budget. It shouldn't be this way.
The fight is the usual one: The college requests more than the county says it can give. Each has concerns that must be addressed. But they need to put aside their mutual suspicions and cooperate on long-term planning that establishes what the college needs, what the county can offer, and what students and parents have to pay. The college can tighten its belt further, and should. The county -- and state -- can kick in more, and should. What's happening now is not productive.
SCCC, which is autonomous, wants a 5 percent county bump in 2015-16; the county is offering 2.51 percent, a $1 million rise. The county says it still struggles with a deficit and that its offer is fair in this tax-cap world. The college says that without the extra money, it must use more of the reserves it's been painstakingly rebuilding from dangerously low levels, or it must increase tuition by more than its planned boost of $180, a 4.1 percent hike that would bring annual full-time tuition to $4,570.
The college still suffers from years of recession-era neglect. Five of the last seven years saw no increases in the county's contribution. The state gives less per pupil than in 2008-09 despite four straight annual increases. The result: Tuition, which state law says should provide just one-third of community college funding, now covers more than 50 percent of SCCC's expenses. The county, and especially the state, pay less than their shares. That can't change overnight, but it must change.
Suffolk, Nassau and community colleges statewide need a rational tuition plan like the one helping New York's four-year public colleges. Set modest tuition increases for a period of years, do the same for state and county aid, and help parents and students plan for the future.
Suffolk, the state's largest community college, educates some of our most-at-risk students. One-quarter are the first in their families to go to college. Sixty percent need remedial courses. Two-thirds get financial aid. Most work, many at more than one job. Many are retraining in response to layoffs or shifting job markets.
And all of them are buying into the notion that education is the key to a better life. Everyone else needs to honor that commitment.