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Editorial: State needs to rethink costly system of chargebacks for community colleges

Here’s one of the many problems that are intrinsic to the state system of chargebacks for community colleges: It pits New Yorkers against one another, penalizing some while benefiting others.

That might be tolerable if there was a reason for it. Progressive income taxes do something similar, for example, taking more from higher-income earners to benefit the public, especially those of lower income. But penalizing taxpayers of one county because their students attend community college in a different county makes no sense. It smacks of political dealmaking.

The price in Erie County is continual and high. County government paid $6.9 million in chargebacks last year. It then passes that cost on to the towns and cities whose students attended another county’s community college. The county took in $1 million from out-of-county students attending Erie Community College.

About $4.6 million from Erie County went to Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, where about 1,300 Erie County residents make up nearly a third of the student body. It is true, but regarding chargebacks irrelevant, that Erie County students are leaving for good reasons. The campus at NCCC is more pleasing than any of ECC’s three campuses, both in terms of space and upkeep. It also has lots of parking and student housing. And the tuition is $600 cheaper. If students are voting with their tuition dollars to leave Erie County, more power to them. It should be enough to get ECC’s attention.

The purpose behind the state-created chargeback system is that it covers additional county expenses in a three-part funding structure that includes tuition plus county and state tax dollars. A student’s tuition, alone, does not cover the cost of education.

But why penalize local taxpayers? Those residents aren’t walloped with what amounts to a fine if students attend a distant state university, such as Brockport or New Paltz, and tuition doesn’t cover those costs, either.

No one should hold his breath waiting, but the state needs to fix the entire community college system, eliminating – or at least discouraging – duplication of programs in adjacent counties and compensating colleges that take in out-of-county students.
Community colleges are part of the State University of New York system, after all. That state needs to get serious about this.

Community colleges need to have the additional costs of educating out-of-county students covered, of course. Any hope of eliminating chargebacks requires a comprehensive overhaul that provides colleges with additional dollars either from the state or the out-of-county students or some combination of the two.

It wouldn’t be the first time Albany revised a punitive funding system. In the past, it required counties to pick up half the non-federal costs of Medicaid, the health care system for the poor. Starting in 2005, the state capped the amount of growth counties would have to pay, and four years ago, began a phased takeover of the growth in local share.

It’s still out of step with most other states, which cover the entire non-federal cost, but it is a significant improvement and evidence that the state will act on punitive local costs when enough pressure is applied.

That’s what should happen with chargebacks. They pit counties against each other and for no better reason than maintaining a costly, inefficient system for which local taxpayers foot much of the bill.

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