Enrollment and revenues are down. Where is ECC heading?

Finding time in their busy legislative calendars, highlighted recently by consideration of the “Feline (Cat) Adoption Promotion Act of 2019,” the Erie County Legislature recently received a presentation concerning the status of Erie Community College. The felines (cats) look like they will be getting some serious attention from the Legislature. The Kats (the ECC mascot) or the taxpayers who help fund their education – not so much.

At a meeting of the Legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee legislators were presented with two reports about the college. There was a PowerPoint from President Dan Hocoy and a report from Comptroller Stefan Mychaljiw’s office about enrollment.

The PowerPoint was primarily a public relations document, long on hyperbole and short on detail. The document highlights included:

  • Operating revenues match operating expenses; but they are “anticipating a tuition variance of $1.5 million”; but “savings due to efficiencies & diligence in purchasing will offset the decline in revenue”; $6.2 million was added to fund balance in the past two years
  • Enrollment is dropping because there are fewer high school graduates; unemployment is low; the state’s Excelsior Scholarship program is having a negative effect on enrollment [likely encouraging prospective students to enroll at a four-year SUNY college rather than a two-year school]
  • To add enrollment the school is expanding current offerings; reaching into “new high schools” (including Buffalo Public Schools); enhancing degree programs; targeting recruitment
  • Student retention is 5 percent below SUNY community colleges as a group, and more than 8 percent below other large community colleges in the state; various efforts are being undertaken to improve retention rates
  • New program development activities include micro-credentials, certificates and in-demand degrees, plus flexible options for working adults
  • ECC 3-year graduation rates have consistently tracked below the SUNY school averages
  • A consultant (JMZ) has been retained to study academic program development and space planning

As part of the space planning, the school will consider constructing a “little village” on property at the corner of Main and Youngs on the North Campus. The plan was recently proposed as a great opportunity for development and revenue. Whether the owner of the property, the County of Erie, would agree to such a development remains to be seen.

There is also a question about where such a development fits in alongside other “little village” or “town center” development projects that have been proposed in Amherst in recent years. So add the ECC project to the following list:

  • Maple Road, near the University at Buffalo – project shelved
  • Former Westwood Golf Course redevelopment – there is a fence around the property but the project remains in discussion
  • Northtown Plaza, next to Whole Foods – there is a fence around the property
  • Boulevard Mall redevelopment – in discussion stage
  • Eastern Hills Mall (actually across the street in Clarence) redevelopment – in discussion stage

Which project(s) will emerge as successful? Is there enough commercial interest for more than one such project? What would push ECC ahead of the rest?

The college’s financial problems were handled delicately in President Hocoy’s report. The presentation says that tuition revenue is $1.5 million below what the 2018-19 budget projected.

The most recently published report to the Board of Trustees on the college budget covers the first six months of the fiscal year, through February 2019. That document notes that tuition revenues are down $4,451,496 or 10.2 percent compared to budget. Compared to the same period last year, tuition revenues are down $2,899,411 or 6.9 percent.

The same report states that total college revenues for the first six months of 2018-19 were down $4,368,529 (6.9 percent) compared with 2017-18. Total spending, however, is up $2,929,343 (6 percent) over the previous year. Obviously the school has several months to recoup the delinquent revenues before their fiscal year ends, but at the moment there is a pretty sizable gap between what was presented to the Legislature and what was presented to the Board of Trustees.

A major source of revenues for the College is state aid. In the 2018-19 budget that source will provide $30.3 million or 27 percent of the total revenues. The draft annual audit of the College notes that state aid per full-time-equivalent student has gone up $350 in the past four years. Declining enrollment at ECC, however, has mitigated the state funding increase.

The enrollment numbers, previously identified in other reporting including here at Politics and Other Stuff, are cause for alarm. Highlights from Comptroller Mychaljiw’s report include the following:

  • ECCs Executive Vice President for Administration and Finance told a County Legislature committee meeting on January 10, 2019 that enrollment was “fairly close to being on par to where we were last year at this time,” fairly close being defined as at 96.3 percent of the previous year’s numbers.
  • Between 2010 and 2018 “total enrollment at ECC decreased by 4,555. This represents a decrease of 30.2% over that time period.” The numbers of both full-time and part-time students have declined.
  • Of the ten SUNY schools in the Western New York region, only two increased enrollment over the same eight year period – UB, up 8.2 percent; and Alfred State, up 0.8 percent. Enrollment at four other community colleges decreased in ranges of negative 21.3 percent (Jamestown Community) to negative 35.4 percent (Monroe County Community).
  • Overall, community colleges’ enrollment in the state dropped 19.8 percent, but the declines were much larger in Western New York than in the state as a whole.
  • The Excelsior Scholarship program is promoted as the SUNY’s “free tuition” plan. The plan has restrictions for eligibility including family income, state residence, a requirement for 30 credit hours per calendar year, and a commitment to continue living in the state for a period of time after college attendance.
  • The Comptroller’s office notes that “attendance at community colleges has empirically decreased during the first year of the [Excelsior Scholarship] program.”
  • In the first year of the Excelsior program only 3.2 percent of students attending SUNY schools statewide received Excelsior Scholarships.
  • 289 ECC students (2.6 percent of enrollment) received the state Scholarship in the first year.
  • The Comptroller notes the relationship between enrollment and the amount of state aid that community colleges receive. “Between the 2010/11 academic year and the 2016-2017 academic year, New York State aid to ECC fell” by $20,435, to a total of $30,451,742 in ’16-‘17.
  • [When additional years’ data is available, the drop from 2010/11 numbers will be more pronounced because enrollment numbers in more recent years will replace enrollment numbers in previous years in the calculation of actual aid.]
  • Erie County’s contribution to ECC during the same period increased by $1,516,357 to a total of $18,945,674 in 2016-17.
  • Tuition for full-time attendance at ECC increased from $3,300 in 2010 to $4,900 in 2018, an increase of 48.5 percent. ECC’s tuition is the highest among Western New York community colleges, and is higher than the state average.

So where are things heading?

Start here, go anywhere, the ECC advertising slogan says. But where, in terms of enrollment and school finances, is really “here” at ECC?

The underlying problems of decreasing enrollment and growing costs must inevitably result in a day of reckoning for the college, when the question of what can be afforded on a sustainable basis is considered. It’s not going to be easy.