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Community colleges budget for slower recovery from pandemic

Tompkins Cortland Community College's extension office in downtown Ithaca. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)
Tompkins Cortland Community College's extension office in downtown Ithaca. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

Community colleges in the Southern Tier are still struggling to recover financially from the effects of the pandemic. With COVID-relief funds set to expire at the end of the school year, schools are reassessing their budgets.

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Nearly all the community colleges within the SUNY system have seen declining enrollment numbers leading up to and during the pandemic. 

That includes both Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) and SUNY Broome.

TC3's vice president of finance, Bill Talbot, presented a new budget to the Tompkins County Legislature last month.

"On the revenue side, we've had some challenges, core enrollments declined 32% during COVID. Our New York state-based aid funding has significantly been reduced," Talbot said.

And while federal COVID-relief funding has helped bridge the gaps for SUNY's community colleges, that funding expires at the end of this school year.

Talbot said TC3's enrollment had grown slightly this fall, though he cautioned it would take time to build the student body back up to pre-pandemic levels. 

Funding from Cortland and Tompkins counties provides about 17% of the revenue for TC3. This year, the contribution from the two counties is set to go down by $152,349, though that decrease primarily affects the budget for capital improvements, not instruction costs. 

Talbot said TC3 spends less per student compared to other community colleges, which helps keep the budget balanced.

"TC3 is the is the third lowest cost per [full time student], we average $11,400 per [student] and the average is $14,200 for the remaining community colleges," Talbot said.

Talbot said the limitation comes from the cost of necessary capital improvements to the college's buildings and facilities.

"There are only so many projects that we can take on," Talbot said. "[Tompkins and Cortland counties] do not have deep pockets, neither one of you. So we were more conservative this year."

He said TC3 estimates those costs could total some $40 million over the next ten years, and making those repairs could require some creative workarounds.