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Times are tough for ECC, other community colleges

The new SUNY Erie Community College president has ideas to help combat a drop in enrollment, as well as financial issues facing the campus community.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Community colleges in Western New York are seen as bridges to higher education with more affordable tuition, or perhaps a part-time option for more flexibility.   

But now they're faced with a number of challenges. 2 On Your Side spoke with SUNY Erie Community College's new president on the difficult road ahead.

For the future of the SUNY ECC system some in power have a pretty blunt assessment. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, "Significant problems to the effect that if they're not addressed properly, the college could go out of business. The whole college, not just the campus, the whole college could be closed."

We asked SUNY ECC President Dr. David Balkin, what would be your reaction to that?

RELATED: Dr. David Balkin appointed SUNY Erie president

"I fully understand and appreciate his concern," Balkin said. "And I'm working with him and everybody else I can in the community to try to reverse, you know, our current situation."

It won't be easy. Balkin's three-campus system lost 50 percent of its paying customers; enrollment dropped by half over the past decade. It was hard hit, like other area community colleges, as the overall college age population fell. 

And Balkin points out, "We haven't really pared our resources down to be commensurate with the enrollment numbers."

So now there are adjustments at ECC. There were previous high-level staff cuts and recently announced course consolidations. Some were shifted from the less-utilized South Campus to the North and Center City campuses, and talks are underway with trustees and union leaders. 

"We end up having more faculty and staff on the books than we can afford," Balkin said.

Balkin, who ran a larger community college system in Indiana near Notre Dame, has definite turn around ideas. 

He suggests tapping in earlier to high schools to, as he puts it, "intercept" interested students who could take advanced courses. He noted: "In many high schools across the country, people are actually graduating from high school and also graduating with their associates degree at the same time."

Also, he and Gov. Kathy Hochul have mentioned courses for so-called micro credentials for all ages. They can help enhance various skill sets and knowledge without a formal degree in the subject. That could potentially be used for career advancement and to improve their abilities for their workplace.

Balkin is also reaching out more so to local businesses to better tailor curriculum to their needs in a variety of sectors.

"We're really interested in understanding what the industry sectors require, whether it's banking and finance, automotive, health care, doesn't matter," Balkin said. "I'm interested in understanding what are the baseline competencies that you want to ensure people have to be successful in your business."

He concludes that "there's just a lot of opportunity, and I just think for whatever reason it's been untapped."

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