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Editorial: Thinking smart at Canisius and ECC

Tough economic challenges call for creative problem-solving. Canisius College and Erie Community College are embracing that idea with their plan to have ECC students room in Canisius dorms in the next academic year.

Canisius, the region’s largest private college, has seen its enrollment shrink by 24 percent over the past five years. The college owns more than 30 buildings, across about 70 acres, which is a lot to tend to when fewer student dollars are coming in. It’s a problem shared by the area’s other private colleges, all of which need to re-engineer themselves.

ECC, meanwhile, competes for students with Niagara County Community College, which does offer dormitory space to its students.

In announcing the program with Canisius on Wednesday, ECC President Dan Hocoy pointed out that many students in Erie County choose to attend community college in Niagara County because NCCC has housing on campus. He said international students and athletes at ECC are particularly interested in having dorm options.

Municipalities, school districts and other entities all talk about the need for consolidation and smart spending these days. All too often, petty rivalries get in the way of those “smart” solutions. It’s nice to see Canisius and ECC coming up with a beneficial plan for both schools.

One of the challenges facing Canisius is competition from the SUNY colleges. The Excelsior Scholarship program championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides free tuition for in-state students at New York public colleges who meet certain criteria.

That program is just a year old, but seems to be having a measurable effect. SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson said last week that the number of applications to the 64 SUNY campuses rose 9 percent this school year. Some 23,000 students received free tuition under the Excelsior Scholarship program this year, Johnson said.

It’s hard to compete with “free,” which is one reason Canisius President John Hurley noted last week that no enrollment increases are expected in the foreseeable future.

That’s why the Canisius-ECC experiment looks like a win-win. Back in April, the two schools announced an agreement for a dual-enrollment program that will allow ECC students to also take classes at Canisius. The dorm deal will give ECC students the chance to enroll in meal plans and have access to Canisius facilities.

About 18 percent of Canisius’ 350-bed property on West Delavan Avenue could be filled with ECC students in the fall. The arrangement is a one-year trial program.

Paying for dorm space at Canisius is clearly a more cost-effective solution for ECC, which has enrollment and budget challenges of its own. The college in January opened a new $30 million science building on its North Campus, the most expensive construction project in ECC history. It’s hard to imagine the school has extra cash sitting around to fund any housing construction.

Just as moms and dads downsize or “right-size” when their nests start to empty, now is the right time for Canisius and ECC to find creative ways to stabilize their bottom lines. The area’s other private colleges should take note.

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