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As declines beset community colleges, ECC and Albany need to re-engineer the system

Erie Community College officials discovering their enrollment woes are worse than anticipated should be alarmed to the point that they make systemic change that will re-engineer the way they offer and deliver education to their students.

Enrollment at community colleges is down statewide and, according to a report in the American Association of Community Colleges, that trend is reflected across the country.

Having said that, community college officials cannot allow today’s statistics to determine tomorrow’s future. This region is wholly dependent upon a skilled and educated workforce. Community college is an ideal educational facility to produce skilled labor.

Advanced manufacturing is one area of demand often cited by ECC officials. They should explore other areas to attract students and meet employer demand. Doubling down on online course offerings as a way to increase virtual enrollment and real dollars would be one idea.

Community college is where people often go to learn new skills that will be directly applicable in the working world. And is also the place where students turn for their first couple of years before heading off to traditional four-year colleges.

ECC is not unlike its counterparts in that it is dependent upon student enrollment. Unfortunately, enrollment dropped – even more than officials anticipated – to 10,805 students on its three campuses, down about 6.5 percent from last fall at the same time. College officials had budgeted for 10,994 students. It is the fifth straight year of enrollment declines at ECC.

The decline may have been anticipated, but not to the degree that it occurred. Although it should not have been a shock. The American Association of Community Colleges and local college officials cite increasing enrollment numbers during recessions. People want to hone their skills and gain new ones.

This was evident in the period around 2008. The current decline, according to the report, began in 2011. Community college enrollment tends to decline once the economy begins to recover.

College officials must figure out how to attract and retain students. ECC has a particular problem because it is forced to maintain three campuses. There may be nothing wrong with this level of infrastructure if it is justified, and in light of the steep competition coming from Niagara County Community College and the onerous chargebacks applied each time a student crosses the county line to attend class. The New York State Legislature should eliminate chargebacks to encourage community colleges to work together and, in doing so, avoid duplication and strengthen their institutions.

ECC officials have said they will cut more than 200 course sections this fall, with another 10 percent planned for the spring semester. In addition, the college is in its second early retirement incentive program in the past year.

This is just plugging holes, instead of fixing the ship. It’s time to re-engineer.

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