Another fall at ECC

Here we are again. Fall in Western New York – a beautiful time of the year.

But not everyone likes Fall. At Erie Community College (aka SUNY Erie), things are not so great this Fall. Student enrollment for this semester at the College is down again.

It’s not like this is something new. It’s unfortunately part of a continuing pattern, which has seen a substantial drop in enrollment in the past several years. For a school that is heavily dependent on students’ tuition payments, the continuous drop puts a severe strain on revenues, which can then impact the availability and quality of program offerings.

A major cause of dropping college enrollment in Western New York is something the schools cannot control, the demographics of our area. Fewer children in elementary and secondary education institutions has been and continues to be a continuing dilemma for local colleges and universities, other than the University at Buffalo.

Unlike the situation in recent years, however, some private colleges have shown an increase in filled seats this fall, with Canisius College, St. Bonaventure University and Niagara University all reporting higher numbers. Not so at ECC.

The leadership of the Community College presented a report to the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (aka, ECFSA or the control board) last week. What was in the document was interesting; so was what was not in the report.

The six page report stated that the Fall enrollment was 9,054. That represents a drop of 10 percent compared with the Fall 2018 numbers. County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw’s Office this past March chronicled declining enrollment at all area community colleges, including ECC. The order of magnitude of ECC’s decline has been similar in both Mychajliw’s and ECC’s reporting, although the numbers are somewhat different, perhaps reflecting use of FTEs versus enrollment numbers.

The ECC report compares the Fall 2019 total enrollment with their budgeted number of students for this semester of 9,446 to show a negative variance of 392 or four percent. Their report does not include Fall of 2018 actuals.

Last week’s report was also missing a key ingredient, detailed dollars and cents. The college in their published monthly agendas for their Board of Trustees has, at least in recent renditions, abandoned the inclusion of a “Financial Dashboard” that had previously provided some hard numbers on revenues and expenses. The most recent “Financial Dashboard” had just six months’ worth of numbers, and they were not too good. The school’s fiscal year ended on August thirty-first, but there should at least be some close-to-complete year numbers available for the first eleven months of 2018-19. I’m sure they are there somewhere, but hiding them does not send a message that says, “stay calm, all is well.”

The ECC document provided to the control board has lots of mentions about the college’s plans for boosting or holding steady enrollment numbers. Reports from the school administration to the County Legislature or the ECFSA tend to be big on public relations and small on substantive information.

I asked ECFSA Chairman James Sampson, who had also previously served as President of the Buffalo Board of Education, for his take on ECC’s presentation and the issues that the College is facing. Here are Sampson’s comments:

“Since the 2010-2011 school year SUNY Erie (Erie Community College) has witnessed a 29% drop in student enrollment, a decline that has continued every year, with a 10% reduction in enrollment for the 2019-2020 academic year. In addition to enrollment decline, SUNY Erie has a student retention rate significantly below its statewide peers. This is taking place when high school graduation rates in Western New York are also declining.

“In order to balance its budget and meet the requirements of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority (Control Board), SUNY Erie continues to rely on expenditure reductions and the use of reserves. Although they have implemented a number of initiatives to increase revenue, enhance student enrollment and reverse retention rates, none of these initiatives taken separately or collectively are enough. Unless this is changed SUNY Erie will face fiscal uncertainty resulting in an inability to meet its core mission, a mission that has been an integral element in the network of higher educational opportunities in Western New York. There will be too much capacity, limited financial resources to support that capacity and reduced quality.

 “The community and SUNY Erie can no longer hope for the best. Time has long since passed that there should be a very public discussion about the future of SUNY Erie and its role in the Western New York community in general and specifically its role in the network of higher education. This should be a bold and visionary discussion including taxpayers, elected officials, the business community, philanthropic entities and educators at all levels. The SUNY Erie of today is not equipped to meet the needs of the students and community of tomorrow.”

The ECFSA at last week’s meeting passed a resolution saying that the 2019-20 ECC budget is “in balance and achievable. The out-years of the financial plan are achievable but do come with a number of significant risks.”

The control board’s resolution highlights several “financial risk items” that express its concerns including:

  • A high reliance on declining tuition revenues
  • Enrollment challenges in a declining traditional-student environment
  • Retention rates significantly lower than its peers and lower than its ultimate goal
  • Increased expectations for Erie County funding
  • A high reliance on cost cutting initiatives
  • The College’s unfunded capital program over the next six years
  • Continued use of fund balance as a revenue

If all of this, for Politics and Other Stuff readers, seems like a broken record (quick, pull out the record player!), it is. Things have been trending down at the College for quite some time. In a similar pattern, the response, or lack thereof, from county elected officials has been consistent – consistently silent.

The declining enrollment numbers and the therefore growing financial issues will not go away if they are ignored. The problems will continue to grow until someone among county elected officials, the College’s Board of Trustees, SUNY administration, or the Office of the State Comptroller will be forced to step in and mandate decisive action. Such action could affect continuing to maintain three campus; re-exploring the school’s education mission; or perhaps forcing some serious consolidation thinking among Western New York’s two-year public colleges.

When the dollars run out in public institutions, things always get serious. The only question for ECC is when, not if, that day will come.