Erie Community College appears headed toward a seventh consecutive year of tuition increases.
Faced with a budget gap of $3.7 million in 2017-18, college trustees are weighing a tuition hike of 3 percent, a move administrators said would raise about $1.3 million toward closing the gap.
Tuition currently is $4,733 per year – 43 percent more than in 2010, which is the last time that ECC students did not see a year-to-year tuition hike. A 3 percent increase for 2017-18 would push tuition to $4,875.
Trustee Timothy C. Callan said a tuition or fee increase probably was unavoidable. "There's going to be pain here," he said. But he encouraged fellow trustees to consider "modest" cuts in helping to bridge the gap in a $108 million spending plan.
"The optics of just going after revenue enhancement on the backs of students without showing some degree of effort for some expense reduction, even if it's $100,000 or $150,000, sends the wrong message," he said.
Average tuition for 30 community colleges in New York was $4,366 in 2016-17. ECC's current tuition is the fourth highest in the state behind Nassau Community College, Suffolk Community College and Tompkins-Cortland Community College.
Tuition increases have coincided with enrollment declines at the three-campus college of roughly 10,000 students. ECC relies on tuition revenue for about half of its revenue. The other half comes from a mix of Erie County sponsorship funds and state aid, and those sources of funding have remained relatively flat.
At the same time, fewer enrolled students amounts to fewer tuition dollars. College officials anticipate another 2 percent decline in enrollment in 2017-18.
William Reuter, ECC's chief financial officer, told trustees during a recent meeting that he polled 15 community colleges across the state about tuition. The average proposed tuition increase of the schools was 3.35 percent, he said.
"Some of the colleges are bumping up their tuition increases this year because of the unknown of the Excelsior Scholarship program," said Reuter.
Under the program, the state will pay tuition for income-qualified students at public colleges and universities in New York. But colleges and universities are required to freeze tuition at the amount a student starts in the scholarship program for the duration of the student's participation in the program.
So, in the case of ECC, if trustees chose to keep tuition as it is, $4,733 per year, the college would receive up to that amount from the state for students who qualify for the scholarships, each year those students are in the program. Some colleges were exploring tuition increases of 5 percent to protect against getting hamstrung by revenue shortfalls due to bad projections.
In addition, community college administrators were unsure of the impact of Excelsior on their enrollments. The plan extends free tuition to the 34 campuses of the State University of New York system, as well as to community colleges. It would effectively undercut the price advantage that community colleges have over four-year public colleges and universities.
In-state tuition for a SUNY college or university currently is $6,470, while the average cost of a community college in the state is $4,350. Many cost-conscious students use community college as a steppingstone into a four-year SUNY school, and community college leaders worry that those students can now bypass their institutions and enroll as freshmen in a four-year program under Excelsior , leading to further declines in enrollment.
On top of raising tuition, ECC trustees were considering a proposal to increase the college technology fee for the second straight year. Under one scenario, the fee would go from $420 per year for a full-time student taking 15 credits to $480 per year.
College trustees must submit a budget plan to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz before May 10. They plan to meet on Thursday to vote. The County Legislature and SUNY Board of Trustees are then required to approve the plan.