Over the nearly five years that Politics and Other Stuff has been published there has been a post or two or twenty about the life and times of Erie Community College, aka SUNY Erie. The College is an important educational institution, but over the past several years, like other colleges in Western New York, it has struggled with declining enrollment and increasingly difficult financial problems. More recently there have been concerns about the leadership of the school, as this blog reported on January 7th.
What puts ECC in a special group of institutions of higher learning is that it is one of the public schools in the area. Substantial government funding, particularly from local taxpayers, sustains operations of the College.
Information provided by administration at the State University of New York shows that between 2010 and 2019 ECC’s enrollment dropped from 15,084 to 10,031 or 33 percent. Niagara County Community College dropped by 2,504 or 34 percent. Genesee Community College dropped 29 percent. Collectively all community colleges in the state dropped 23 percent.
It is commonly observed that if a person or an organization wants to work its way to a better situation they must first accept that a problem exists. Otherwise wheels spin in the mud and nothing positive happens. The folks at ECC seem to have avoided taking the first step.
The posts about the College that have appeared on this blog have related to hard facts, mostly out of public records and occasionally by way of Freedom of Information Law requests for data. I have also included commentary on such things, guided by personal involvement and observations about the college over a period of more than forty years.
The hard truth is that ECC’s Board, executive staff and county elected officials need to face the fact that they are in trouble with enrollment and finances, and that what they have been doing, which is what the College has been doing for a long time, isn’t working and needs to be re-designed.
As noted, I have taken a great deal of the information I have used from publicly obtainable documents. The facts show that:
- Enrollment at the college is at the lowest point it has been at in many years. The spring 2020 numbers are reportedly lower than a year ago and also below the college’s budgeted numbers for the spring semester of the current academic year.
- The finances of the school are in peril because of the declining enrollment. You can only cut so much before affecting the general service offerings.
- Thousands of Erie County residents are choosing to attend community college in other counties, which costs Erie County taxpayers money. Erie County sent nearly $2 million to Niagara County Community College in 2019, and another $485,495 to Genesee Community College.
Operating three campuses is not sustainable but there has been no public discussion about what to do about that. Pie-in-the-sky proposals for a “village” on the Williamsville campus or for a “cannabis campus” on the waterfront, where students would learn about the business of growing and selling recreational marijuana, serve no useful purpose.
In preparation for this post I went to the College’s website, which has provided substantial information about the college for previous blogs. What I found is that for some reason the last entry for the detailed package of information items for Board of Trustees meetings is from June 2019. The last minutes of a Board meeting that can be found on the website are from April 2019.
I am certain that the college’s Board of Trustees has continued to function since last spring. I know that because I have copies of certain Board records from this past fall that I looked at at that time and made copies of. It is a pretty good guess that the missing information has to do with bad numbers for enrollment and finances. Actually, I know that, to a degree, because of what was reported in the fall.
Here are some facts from those vanished minutes:
- The school finished the 2018-19 fiscal year this past August, based on a “tentative draft – still working on final analysis,” with revenues up $3.9 million over the previous year, but under budget for 2018-19 by approximately one-half million dollars.
- The school spent $5.7 million more in 2018-19 than in 2017-18. The 2018-19 budget was overspent by about one-half million dollars.
- Through September 24, 2019 fall enrollment was down 4.96 percent by headcount and 6.13 percent by full-time equivalents.
- Spending was being held tight in the area of teaching overload and adjunct faculty work.
- The total cost of Erie County chargebacks (payments to other community colleges for students who are from Erie County) was $3,249,378 in the fall of 2019, a decrease of 1.3 percent from the previous year but still a considerable number.
- The Erie County municipalities with the largest share of costs for the chargeback program were Amherst ($525,026) and Buffalo ($492,888), the locations of two of the college’s three campuses. Chargeback costs are added to county tax bills based on the residences of the students who attend community colleges in other counties.
- The school’s Budget and Audit Committee was informed at their August 22nd meeting that the school’s Auxiliary Service Corporation, which manages such things as the bookstores, was running a deficit.
- As of September 2019, ECC students contributed 39.4 percent of the school’s operating costs; the average for all 30 community colleges in the state is 37.7 percent. County government contributed 22.9 percent of total costs while the state average is 32.7 percent. New York State paid for 28.9 percent of the ECC’s costs; the average for all community colleges is 23.9 percent.
Reports circulating at the college indicate that enrollment is down again, below the budgeted number of students for the spring semester, which began on January 21st. There is no publicly reported information about that or the school’s budget.
As I have frequently reported in previous posts, most of the enrollment and therefore the financial difficulties that ECC is experiencing are not of the school’s making. But continuing to operate the same old way instead of waking up to reality is not helpful. Since the school is heavily dependent on public funds, discussions about the college’s future must be held in public forums.
Until public information comes forth about enrollment and finances, the only conclusion left on the table at the moment is that the management of ECC is hiding something from the public. That’s not good for the college or the community.