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Widening tuition gap is just the latest problem facing ECC

Niagara County Community College is planning a tuition increase for the coming academic year. Even so, the college will still look like a bargain compared to its Erie County neighbor, making crossing the county line an easy choice for potential students living in the northern suburbs.

Erie County not only loses their tuition payments, taxpayers get saddled with onerous chargebacks that kick in when students from one county choose to attend community college in another. All this as the battle for a dwindling student population gets more intense.

Despite NCCC’s tuition increase, its price advantage over Erie Community College has grown because ECC raised tuition even more. The 2016-17 tuition at NCCC will be $4,080 for a full-time, full-year student, a $120 increase. Last month ECC set its 2016-17 tuition at $4,733, a $138 increase. That’s $653 more than the new figure for NCCC, a significant gap. And although each increase was about 3 percent, ECC’s higher starting point means the gulf between the two keeps widening.

Part-time students can also save at NCCC, paying $170 per credit hour compared to ECC’s $198 per credit hour.

ECC is betting on a more than $30 million STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) facility to lure students to the aging North Campus. A series of delays in the project keeps postponing its possible benefits in helping recruit students. At last word, the building will not be ready until December 2017 or January 2018.

Colleges everywhere are dealing with a decline in enrollment. The decline in the number of students is especially dramatic at ECC and worsens an already difficult financial picture.

With state and county aid flat and tuition income dropping, difficult decisions need to be made. ECC has been under intense scrutiny by the county executive and, in particular, the State Comptroller’s Office, which issued a report harshly critical of the college’s financial practices.

ECC officials worked to correct those problems, but the college’s future remains cloudy. It’s not all bad news. The college has some popular academic programs, including nursing. It has important certificate programs that prepare students for jobs requiring specific skills.

NCCC has its own challenges: disappointing enrollment and frozen taxpayer contributions among them. Still, the college’s “Learning Commons” project, slated to open next year, should serve it well, as will the focus on adding new vocational programs in winery operations and craft brewing. NCCC’s president also mentioned ideas for future construction projects: a science and technology building of its own and improvements to athletic facilities.

That’s gloomy news for ECC, which will fall further behind as NCCC continues to deliver more bang for students’ bucks.