Time to start thinking about a merger of ECC and NCCC

In the Western New York community over the past two or three decades, we have seen all sorts of consolidations and closings. There are fewer churches, elementary and high schools, libraries, supermarket chains.  There was a time when there was a neighborhood bar on practically every corner of the City of Buffalo, but even that institution is diminished.

There are still about 16 institutions of higher education in Western New York. But except for the University at Buffalo, most are going through some stage of financial struggle as the education pipeline of feeder schools is narrowing.  A smaller population means fewer candidates for college admission, and most institutions here depend on Western New York high schools to fill their college seats.  Business First reports that there were 16,103 public high school graduates in Western New York in 2008, but 14,653 in 2014, a drop of nine percent.  The 2010 Census in Western New York indicated 18 percent fewer one year-olds than 13 year-olds, so the diminishing group of future WNY college students will continue for many years.

In the meantime many of the schools are struggling to keep their financial heads above water. The schools are working hard to maintain their academic standards as enrollment falls and costs rise.  Tuition increases, layoffs and dipping into fund balances are becoming common occurrences.

There is one set of schools that directly impacts local taxpayers, the community colleges. Let’s focus on Erie Community College (ECC) and Niagara Community College (NCCC).  County property taxpayers pay in two ways.

When community colleges were first created in New York State many decades ago, the intention was that the schools’ finances would come in equal shares from the students, the state, and the sponsoring county. That 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 split in reality has not existed for many years.  The largest share of cost has shifted to the students.  County shares have generally dropped below 20 percent.  Fortunately, federal Pell grants and New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) are available to help a large number of community college students.

A State University of New York summary of community college finances indicates that in the 2013-14 academic year, Erie county government provided $17.4 million in direct assistance to ECC, which represented 15.6 percent of the college’s total revenues. In Niagara County, county government provided $8.9 million to NCCC, 18.3 percent of the college’s total budget.

In addition to the direct funding, counties are required to pay a share of the cost of their residents’ who attend a community college in another county. The 2015 Erie county budget includes $5.9 million to pay for such chargebacks.  Niagara County this year will pay $1.4 million in chargebacks to other counties.

Most of the Erie county’s chargeback money, history has shown, goes to NCCC. More than 8 percent of NCCC total revenues came in the form of chargebacks from other counties, including Erie.

All counties, including Erie and Niagara, also provide various amounts of capital assistance for community college campus renovations and new facilities, usually matched on a 50 percent basis by the state.

Consider these recent developments:

  • ECC Board of Trustees, in the face of declining enrollment, voted to raise annual tuition by $300 (7 percent) to a total of $4,595 in 2015-16.  This was part of an effort to close a $7.8 million budget gap.  The total budget is about $111 million.
  • ECC’s enrollment in 2014-15 declined 5 percent from the previous year, and is projected to drop another 3 percent in 2015-16.
  • State legislators increased state aid to the college by $100 per student, but because enrollment is dropping, total state aid to ECC will go down by $600,000 next year because state aid is tied to enrollment.
  • ECC faculty and administrators have been without new contracts for about six years.  There has been speculation recently that there could be a settlement developing on the faculty contract, but that will take millions of dollars to accomplish.  The college’s fund balance is declining and the county has only increased its contribution to the college by a small amount in the past seven years, so where the millions of dollars would come from for a faculty contract settlement is a mystery.  Using up fund balance can create a problem with their Middles States Association accreditation.
  • The NCCC Board of Trustees approved a 2015-16 budget that raises tuition $72 for the year, to a total of $3,960.  Niagara County’s contribution to the school will remain the same for the ninth year in a row.
  • NCCC settled a contract with their faculty after nine years without a new contract.  The college is using fund balance to fill a budget gap in 2015-16.
  • NCCC enrollment is projected to decrease by a little over 1 percent in 2015-16.

There are also and most importantly issues about the academic offerings at both schools. ECC has been trying to consolidate some program overlaps at its three campuses.  Undoubtedly there are further academic overlaps that exist between the schools in the two counties.

There of course exist some very expensive overlaps among administrative positions at the schools – two presidents, two VP’s of finance, two VP’s of academic affairs, etc. – a veritable Noah’s Ark of staff.

While both schools have major, identified capital projects in the works, the projects probably don’t scratch the surface of what needs to be done. ECC’s North campus is showing its 1950’s/’60’s age.  The City campus has substantial needs too.

ECC leadership has recently volunteered to participate in the development of a block of property in downtown Buffalo across from the central library as part of a City project that might include a supermarket for the growing downtown population. The City’s interest in the project is understandable and important, but the college’s role is perplexing.  County Legislature Chairman John Mills says the Legislature was “blindsided” by the proposal.  Considering that ECC cannot afford to maintain the facilities it currently has, where would the money come from to put up a new building for the downtown campus?

Much is written about the critical role that community colleges play in economic development activity in an area, and it is true. But to position themselves to play a meaningful role, community colleges need to get their ducks in a row.

A merger of ECC and NCCC is not something that could happen quickly. But unless local leaders begin a discussion about such things, it will grow increasingly difficult for the schools to operate efficiently to meet their mission.

Speaking about saving tax dollars …

How is this one for a man-bites-dog story. The City of Buffalo is completing a deal to loan money to the West Seneca School District.  Kudos to Mayor Brown, the Common Council and Comptroller Schroeder for making this possible.