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Sharp ECC enrollment drop puzzles administrators

Erie Community College officials expected a modest dip in enrollment this year. But the decline turned out to be steeper than projected, forcing administrators to find ways to make up for a $2.2 million shortfall in revenue.

What’s more, college officials say they haven’t been able to pinpoint yet why fewer students enrolled.

“It is a severe situation that is affecting our budget,” said Benjamin Packer, executive vice president of student affairs at ECC.

Spring enrollment was down nearly 10 percent from the 2014 spring semester, including a 17 percent decline in new applicants who were admitted, Packer told the ECC board of trustees at its recent January meeting.

New federal standards governing financial aid and a low local unemployment rate may be factors, but the college has to do more research to understand why the dip has been so much greater than anticipated.

College officials based the 2014-15 budget on a full-time equivalent of 11,822 students – down from 12,500 in 2013-14. The actual enrollment is closer to 11,271 full-time equivalent students.

With 550 fewer students than expected, the college will lose about $2.2 million in tuition revenue.

The smaller enrollment also could mean fewer state aid dollars, because the state bases its aid to community colleges on enrollment figures.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2015-16 executive budget doesn’t include any operating aid increases for community colleges, and it also includes a stipulation calling for the state to withhold 10 percent of that aid if a college fails to submit a “performance improvement plan.”

“It was not good news for us coming out of Albany,” said ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. “The budget picture is not positive.”

Community colleges statewide are experiencing enrollment declines, and they lobbied the governor for a $300 increase in the current $2,497-per-student amount that the state currently provides as base operating aid.

The base aid could still increase as the governor, Assembly and Senate negotiate a final budget.

“We have to really count on the As- sembly and the Senate to come through. This could really be disastrous,” said trustee Raymond Gallagher, who is chairman of the board’s subcommittee on budget, finance and contracts.

The state’s base aid formula is lower than it was five years ago, even as community college costs have grown, Gallagher said.

If base aid remains as it is now, ECC could be staring at potentially another tuition increase or dipping further into its reserves.

Last May, the trustees did both, approving a tuition increase of $300, one of the largest ever at ECC, and the use of $4 million in reserves.

Erie County residents who are full-time students pay $4,295 in 2014-15 – a 7.5 percent increase over the 2013-14 tuition.

To trim costs, the college hasn’t filled vacant positions. William Reuter, the college’s chief financial officer, said he also will look for savings elsewhere to help balance the $112.3 million budget.

But many of the college’s highest costs, such as pension and health care, are rising, he said.

“Our expense side continues to be squeezed. We’re a people business,” he said.