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Cuomo’s Tuition Reform is Anything But

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Cuomo Reform Bill Raises Tuition for SUNY Institutions

Cuomo Tuition Reform BillNothing is certain except death and taxes, and if Mark Twain were alive today, I’m certain he’d add tuition increases to that list, too.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill to the New York State Legislature last week, titled the “Rational Plus Plan,” that would allow tuition increases at SUNY institutions of up to five percent over the next five years.

There is no doubt that the old way of raising tuition was flawed – the legislature would not raise tuition for years (doing so only twice between 1995 and 2003); then when faced with a large budget gap, would saddle students with a large increase. Instead of a gradual, predictable, affordable tuition increase every year, students were left to wonder every year if they were going to be hit with a double-digit tuition increase – like in 2009, when tuition increased 12.4 percent. But the proposed reforms wouldn’t ease the financial burden on students; instead they would exacerbate the problem.

The plan would also allow tuition to increase up to eight percent a year for the same period at the system’s four research centers – UAlbany, Stony Brook, Binghamton and Buffalo. A 40 percent increase over five years is criminal. SUNY institutions, long praised for being among the most affordable for out-of-state students, is quickly shedding that label and becoming more akin to public colleges like the University of Vermont and the University of Virginia, whose cost of attendance for out-of-staters is thousands above the national average for four-year private institutions.

Reforming the nonsensical approach to increasing SUNY tuition is long overdue, and the governor and legislature deserve credit for tackling the issue head-on. But the “Rational Plus Plan” is far from rational – instead of students getting robbed every once in a while when the state runs itself into financial trouble, this plan would streamline this process by fleecing students every year.

An annual five percent cap on tuition increases is not something to be proud of. Of the plan, the governor stated “the bill brings rationality to the SUNY system by allowing students and family to reasonably plan ahead […] instead of being subject to dramatic tuition increases.” This is true, though I would imagine telling a high school senior bound for UAlbany in advance that she’s going to be ripped off to the tune of 8% annually instead of one surprise 15% hike her junior year is really just a question of semantics.

Governor Cuomo doesn’t need to go back to the drawing board to create a new tuition plan. In fact, his administration has already come up with a brilliant approach. Cuomo’s property tax cap, a key component of his gubernatorial campaign, prevents property taxes from raising above 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. The legislature approved the measure in May.

The Wall Street Journal noted that the average annual property tax increase over the last decade was 5.4 percent – double the rate of inflation.

So the question begs – if a property tax rate that increases at twice the rate of inflation is so egregious to New Yorkers, the legislature and the governor that a law must be enacted to combat it, why would anyone approve of a 5-8 percent increase in tuition for SUNY schools that could outpace inflation by nearly 400 percent?

The cost of college tuition has been increasing unchecked for decades, and students cannot keep up. Since the class of 2011 was born, the average cost of attending a public four-year university has increased over 400 percent. The average median income has increased just 200%.

Property taxes and college tuition costs have both been spiraling out of control for years. In the last decade, tuition at public four-year universities across the nation has increased at an average of 4.5 percent a year – nearly mirroring the property tax rate of 5.4 percent. Yet the Cuomo administration has taken antithetical approaches to these two very similar problems: tax homeowners less, make students pay more.

Wake up, New York. Replacing misguided approach that didn’t address out-of-control tuition costs with a plan that streamlines these unaffordable increases will drive students away from the SUNY system – and many of these students aren’t financially able to go anywhere else.

Studies show that New Yorkers who leave the state for college don’t come back. You just lost multiple seats in Congress for the seventh time in a row – its days as a powerful state may be numbered. Governor Cuomo is right – New York has a future as the tax capital of the nation. But if it continues to disregard the needs of students, and pushes students to look out-of-state for higher education, it has no future as a competitor on the national stage.

–Zach Despart is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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