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ECC board votes to hike tuition, fees for next school year

Erie Community College students will pay an additional $138 per year in tuition, plus more in student fees, under a 2016-17 budget plan unanimously approved Thursday by the college’s trustees.

Tuition, which is currently $4,595 per year, would increase by 3 percent to $4,733, pending approval of the college’s spending plan by both the Erie County Legislature and the State University of New York board of trustees.

ECC trustees also raised the technology fee for students by 27 percent from $330 to $420 per year for a full-time student.

The college already has the third-highest tuition among community colleges in the state. The hikes were part of an effort to close a $7.5 million gap in a $108.5 million budget. The trustees also cut 50 vacant positions and used $1.5 million in reserves.

“Of course, any tuition increase is a hardship on our students, but the reality is that over 80 percent of our budget is beyond our control,” said board chairman Stephen Boyd, citing salary step increases for employees and fringe benefits.

Tuition is the college’s largest source of revenue, and with enrollment declining over the past several years and state and county aid staying relatively flat, trustees have resorted to raising tuition and using reserves the past three years to balance budgets. Between spring of 2012 and this spring, total enrollment has dropped 21 percent, from 11,115 students to 8,788 students.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz warned last week that the college was not on a sustainable financial path and needed to fix systemic problems instead of raising tuition rates.

The budget is due to Poloncarz for review by Monday.

Boyd agreed that the college needed structural changes and he said college officials will be asking county officials for more financial help in carrying out such changes.

“I think there’s a willingness to help. We know that they value this institution,” he said.

But Boyd also pointed out that both the county and the state fall short of their required contributions to the college’s operating budget, which is supposed to be funded in nearly equal parts by county sponsorship funds, state aid and tuition.

The college’s fiscal challenges won’t ease anytime soon. College officials predict that enrollment will continue to drop slightly for the next few years, before leveling off in 2019-2020.

“This is not just a 2016-17 problem for the college. This is a three- or four-year problem,” said Timothy C. Callan, trustee and deputy budget director for Erie County.

William D. Reuter, ECC chief financial officer, said the college will have little wiggle room in budgeting next year, especially since its fund balance will dwindle to $7.2 million, putting ECC close to the bottom range of reserves required by its accrediting body, the Middles States Commission on Higher Education.

“If we continue down this path,” Reuter said, “the future may require us to look at other options, including filled positions.”

The college currently has 68 open positions, and the new budget eliminates 50 of them, including 24 teaching faculty and four senior executive staff. In earlier budget deliberations last week, the board hired a new associate vice president for student success at an annual salary of $90,000. College officials maintained that the post was critical to helping the college turn around enrollment slides by retaining more of its students from year to year.

ECC isn’t alone in its enrollment and fiscal woes.

The state provides support for community colleges based on enrollment, so even though the State Legislature increased base aid for community colleges by $100 per full-time student, the net effect for colleges with declining enrollment will be an overall loss of state aid. ECC, for example, would have needed a $150-per-student increase in base state aid to receive the same overall amount in 2016-17 as in 2015-16. Instead, the college’s budget crafters estimate ECC will get $30.4 million in state aid, or $356,209 less than in 2015-16.

Two-thirds of the state’s 30 community colleges are in the same boat, which is why the State University of New York had requested a $285-per-student increase in base aid.

The Legislature “essentially forced a tuition increase onto over 20 of the community colleges,” said Nina Tamrowski, a professor of political science at Onondaga Community College and a member of the SUNY board of trustees, which met this week at Westchester Community College. “I mean, there’s no other way for community colleges to make up that lost revenue.” Tamrowski described as ironic the State Legislature’s push for a tuition freeze for SUNY’s state-operated campuses, which include the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State.

“Where they were concerned about tuition on one hand,” said Tamrowski, “they clearly weren’t thinking about it for the community colleges, where our most economically challenged students are very likely to face a tuition increase as a result.”

Randall J. VanWagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College, polled fellow community college presidents across the state and found that at least 20 of them were planning tuition increases, most within the range of 3 to 5 percent and a handful of them more than 5 percent. Five colleges were expecting to lay off some staff, VanWagoner said during a recent meeting of the SUNY trustees Community College Committee.

Many of the colleges will be freezing positions, he added.

Belinda S. Miles, president of Westchester Community College, said, “That means fewer services for students, and as we’re looking at the emphasis on completion, progression throughout the curriculum toward degree and producing more graduates, it becomes more challenging to provide the supports that are required for our students.”