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Erie Community College trustees vote to raise tuition

The last time Erie Community College student April Chatmon did her laundry, she cobbled together money for the coin-operated machines by returning empty pop bottles.

So the single mom studying toward a nursing degree isn’t sure how she can afford a $300 tuition increase approved Tuesday by the ECC board of trustees.

“There’s no extra. There’s no savings,” said Chatmon, who lives in Amherst. “If I had to pay any more, I would most likely be sunk.”

For the second year in a row, the ECC board voted to raise tuition by $300, or $13 for each credit hour.

The board approved a full-time tuition rate of $4,595 for county residents in 2015-16.

Trustees and college administrators said declining enrollment, flat county aid and falling state aid forced them into the 7 percent tuition hike, which was approved by a 7-1 vote, along with a 2015-16 college spending plan of nearly $111 million.

“This was a hard decision for our trustees and our senior staff,” said ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. “The enrollment numbers are killing us because that’s what they peg state aid to.”

Quinn told faculty and staff in a memo in March that he was implementing emergency measures aimed at closing a $1.2 million budget deficit this fiscal year and a projected $7.8 million deficit in 2015-16. The belt-tightening moves include not filling vacant positions, limiting travel, deferring road maintenance, reducing office supplies and cutting back on contracted services.

Enrollment at ECC declined by about 5 percent this year. It’s projected to fall another 3 percent in 2015-16. That will cut into the tuition revenue the college relies upon for more than half of its budget. Total tuition revenue was expected to drop by nearly $1 million to $56.5 million.

And even though state legislators increased by $100 the rate at which community colleges are reimbursed, state aid to ECC will fall by more than $600,000, because the aid formula is based upon enrollment figures.

Administrators pegged the number of full-time equivalent students at 10,878 for 2015-16, down from 11,822 this academic year and from 12,151 in 2013-14.

Students expressed frustration they will have to assume more of the cost burden, even though the state’s community colleges had been set up to be funded by equal parts state aid, county aid and tuition.

“The fact that it’s going up is kind of crazy,” said Yash Tangri of Williamsville. “It’s going to deter students. A lot of students come here because it’s cheap.”

Some students said higher tuition could lead to declines in community college enrollment, with more students choosing to enroll at a four-year State University of New York campus because they may no longer believe the savings of enrolling their first two years at ECC outweigh the benefits of being on a SUNY campus for all four years. Average tuition and fees at a SUNY campus are $6,470, and a recent ECC marketing study indicated that two of its primary competitors are the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State.

Quinn pointed out that roughly 60 percent of ECC students receive federal Pell grants and state Tuition Assistance Program grants that should cover all of the $300 increase.

But Chatmon said she could barely afford textbooks this semester, even with a Pell grant. And she’s already used up her state TAP allowance.

“I have not heard anything about financial aid going up,” said Chatmon, who works part time as a hemodialysis technician and is on a work-study program at ECC, as well.

“I’m what they consider ‘tapped out,’ ” she said.

The budget and tuition increase must be approved by both the Erie County Legislature and the State University of New York trustees.

To help keep the tuition hike down, the ECC board also dipped into the college’s fund balance for the third straight year.

That fund will dip to about $9 million by the end of 2015-16 – or 8 percent of its overall budget. The college ran into fiscal problems more than a decade ago and was warned by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools to maintain a fund balance of 5 to 15 percent of its overall budget.

Based on demographics and area unemployment rates, college officials are expecting enrollment to be flat in 2016-17 before picking up again in 2017-18. In the past, higher unemployment rates have coincided with higher enrollment numbers at ECC.

“We mapped it. As unemployment goes down, we find enrollment, 80 percent of the time, follows the decreases,” said William D. Reuter, ECC’s chief financial officer. “We run counter to the economic cycles.”

A new $30 million academic building at ECC’s North Campus in Amherst also is scheduled to open in 2017 and is expected to help spur enrollment growth, Reuter said.

The county, for the first time in seven years, raised its contribution to ECC by $125,000 for 2015-16.

But the county’s $17.5 million contribution is still far shy of the 27 percent share that state education law expects sponsors to provide to their community colleges. Quinn said he plans to ask county legislators and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz for another increase.