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Accreditor warns ECC on finances, other problems

Financial issues and other problems at Erie Community College have prompted the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to warn that the college's accreditation could be jeopardized if the problems aren't fixed.

Middle States issued the warning in a Nov. 17 letter to ECC President Dan Hocoy. The college has a year to fix the problems or risk being placed on probation, a step before having accreditation revoked.

Colleges that lose accreditation can no longer receive state or federal financial aid, and their credits are not transferable to other institutions.

The warning was based upon a periodic review of ECC operations on June 1 by Middle States, the accrediting body for all colleges and universities in six Mid-Atlantic region states, including New York, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Hocoy, who took over as ECC president in July, said he considered the evaluation to be fair.

He described the warning as akin to what happens when a driver gets stopped by a trooper on the highway for a faulty brake light.

"You don't get a fine. You get a fix-it ticket, and that's what this is," Hocoy said.

The college already has taken some steps to address accreditors' concerns. Middle States representatives will return to campus in October to review the college's progress.

"They're concerned about our financial sustainability," he said. "I think by September of next year our financial predicament will look a lot better."

He projected a budget surplus of $3.5 million at the end of 2017-18 that will be returned to the college's reserve fund.

For years, ECC has been raising tuition and dipping into its reserves to balance budgets as enrollment declined and state and county aid stayed flat. Student tuition is the college's primary source of revenue, but enrollment has fallen annually from a high of 13,650 students in 2010-11 to about 10,750 this fall.

Tuition increased to $4,900 in 2017-18, a 48 percent increase over tuition in 2010-11.

The Erie County Fiscal Stability Board and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in 2016 also warned the college to address its financial issues before it requested more aid from the county. Poloncarz expressed frustration then that the college hadn't done enough to position ECC for the future.

A 2016 state audit of ECC painted a portrait of a college under former President Jack F. Quinn Jr. that was mismanaged, with contracts being awarded without a proper bidding process and unauthorized raises being handed out to top administrators. Quinn retired at the end of June.

On Wednesday, Poloncarz said the college's current financial problems stemmed from "legacy" issues and expressed optimism that the county would be able to help the college work its way through what he termed a sea change in the world of higher education.

"We do have a lot of institutions of higher education in Western New York, probably more than we should have, based on the level of individuals coming out of secondary education," he said.

What sets ECC apart is that it offers programs such as 12-week certificates that few other institutions have and that local employers value, he said.

"For a lot of what's going on in this community, you don't need a four-year degree," Poloncarz said.

In addition to the financial concerns, Middle States also cited shortcomings in how the college assesses learning outcomes and how it involves faculty members in those assessments.

Middle States regularly issues warnings and probations to colleges and universities, although it rarely withdraws accreditation. Nassau Community College had its probation lifted Nov. 16, while North Country Community College in Saranac Lake joined ECC on the warning list.

ECC must submit a monitoring report to Middle States by Sept. 1, documenting that it has addressed all of the concerns. If a site visit team determines that the issues have not been properly addressed, the warning could continue or ECC could be placed on probation.

The college has been in trouble with Middle States before. In 2000, the accrediting organization refused to reaffirm ECC's accreditation because it said county officials were exerting undue influence over budget and hiring matters at the college. The college was put on probation for a year between 2003 and 2004.

The college also was warned in 2011 about insufficient planning and institutional assessment. The warning was removed in 2012.

Hocoy said the college can't keep raising tuition and dipping into fund balances any longer and must grow revenues to become more fiscally stable.

While the number of traditional college-aged students is shrinking, ECC can do a better job getting more working adults to enroll at the college, especially through online degree programs, he said.

"I believe this is an untapped market. We're going to strengthen and move aggressively in this direction," he said.

The college also wants to add residence halls that will attract more student athletes and international students to campus, he said.

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