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Don't change tuition structure at city and state schools

Elinor Tatum | 4/12/2011, 5:28 p.m.

The fight for CUNY's soul has been an ongoing battle for decades now. In my parents' generation, immigrants and people of color were able to get a college education for free. As the system turned from predominately white to Black and Brown in the 1970s, the commitment to free tuition went away, forcing our families to scramble to find a way to cover fees.

It was a struggle, but we managed to do it.

And CUNY system became a system that reflected the diversity of our city.

But this is not the CUNY that all the powers that be wanted to see. Led by the notorious Rudy Giuliani and the sell-out from our cousin community of color, Herman Badillo, who did Giuliani's bidding on CUNY's board of trustees, CUNY went from being a system of colleges that was open widely to our people--a true reflection of this city--to a system that is retuning to the days when the system was overwhelmingly white, which will leave a great deal of the city's population in the dust.

At the same time, the SUNY system, which has always been underrepresented with people of color, has increasingly become more elite with the rate of acceptances to the best schools as competitive as some of the Ivy league.

The city and state schools remain the best answer out of poverty and into the middle class for many of New York's high school graduates and GED recipients, but that may soon change if some have there way.

There is a groundswell of support in Albany for a new tuition system whereby the strongest colleges and universities in the system will be able to charge a higher tuition than that of the less desirable schools.

According to the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) , tuition hikes of up to 8 percent a year at Ph.D.-granting institutions and up to 5 percent at other SUNY and CUNY senior colleges for four consecutive years after a 2 percent hike in 2010-2011 would far outpace the rate of higher education inflation (currently 2.3 percent), and they could lead to an acceleration in the shift of public funding away from higher education.

These tuition hikes could quickly price low-income students out of SUNY and CUNY, especially since the maximum Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) award would increase at only half the rate of tuition. By the 2014-2015 academic year, the highest SUNY tuition could be as much as $6,897--$949 in excess of the proposed maximum TAP award. The highest CUNY tuition in 2014-2015 could be as much as $6,381 under this plan. It would exceed the proposed maximum TAP award by $433, according to NYPIRG.

What this will do is continue to create a great divide between the haves and have-nots. Those students with a strong academic record and the ability to pay more than the standard SUNY and CUNY fees will now be able to be part of the "elite" elements of the systems, while those that don't have the means will be relegated to the second- and third-tier class of institutions.

This structure will continue to make the system whiter and less diverse and lead to a cultural desert for students in the far reaches of the state.

We can ill afford to continue to create a two- or even three-tiered college education system. Our children already start out on an uneven playing field. CUNY and SUNY were part of the answer to leveling that field. If we allow a change in the tuition structure, that level playing field will be lopsided again, and there will be an even higher mountain to climb to get out of poverty. We urge Black and Latino legislatures to reject this legislation. It is not in the interest of our communities or our people.