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Despite tuition hike, ECC struggles to fund athletics

The cost of operating a successful intercollegiate athletics program at Erie Community College is going up, and college administrators are trying to figure out a way to pay for it, while at the same time responding to a federal civil rights investigation into whether it offers women enough access to sports.

One proposal was to create a new athletics and wellness fee, separate from the student activity fee that historically has funded sports.

But that idea would have meant an overall 50 percent increase in student fees, prompting a cool response from some members of the ECC Board of Trustees, who had just finished approving a budget that includes a tuition hike.

So administrators are going back to the drawing board on funding for 15 sports played by 320 student athletes. They're also trying to improve fitness and wellness opportunities for the entire student body.

"We're going to do everything we can to preserve our student athletes and the athletic programs we have," said Erik D'Aquino, vice president for enrollment management at ECC.

ECC's student activity fee currently is $140 annually per full-time student, and it has not increased in years. Thus, as enrollment has declined, the total collected also has gone down.

The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights last year cited the college for not providing enough athletic opportunities for women, so that they were proportionate to the number of female students at ECC.

To help remedy the gender inequity, the college last year added swimming and diving. The college plans this year to add women's cross country. It has not cut any men's sports.

Tuition at Erie Community College to increase by 3.5 percent

The athletics department this year received $633,935 in student activity fees for its operations. It sought $801,050 in funding for 2017-18, in part to shore up its deficiencies in meeting federal gender equity requirements for athletics.

To pay for it, college administrators proposed creating a new student athletics and wellness fee that is separate from the student activity fee. Under a scenario presented to the board earlier this week, the athletics fee would be $4 per credit hour and the student activity fee would be $3 per credit hour, a full-time student taking 15 credits would pay $210 annually, rather than the current $140.

Some trustees said they were concerned by the steep increase in the total fees, which are not covered by state financial aid.

"It seemed to me there was a budget request by the athletic department and the only way to pay for it was a fee increase. Instead of an in-depth review of programs and budgets to look for cost savings that could have financed the Title IX requirements, the jump was to a fee increase," said Todd Hobler, a trustee.

In an interview, D'Aquino said he and other administrators will comb through the athletic department budgets again to try and determine "what we can do to solidify proper funding for years to come."

While some of the new fee would go to help the college meet its gender equity requirements, D'Aquino said a significant portion would be used to pay for improved and expanded fitness and wellness opportunities to benefit all students. Those opportunities would include the hiring of monitors to allow the college to keep its gym open longer hours. Student surveys show that students want more opportunities to work out at the college, said D'Aquino.

"We don't want to put more on the backs of our students, but at the same time we want to be more responsive to what they're looking for," he said.

Some administrators said that cutting sports teams will ultimately end up hurting the college's bottom line.

A college analysis showed that athletics generated $591,170 in positive revenue for the college in 2016-17, after costs for the sports were factored in.

"Athletics in the big picture is a money maker for the institution," said William Reuter, chief financial officer at ECC.

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