With the community colleges poised to receive the second-largest amount of funding ever in their 40-year history, NYSUT's community college leaders and members can now look beyond mere survival and think, "What next?
They are in a strong position to help shape the answer to that question. Community college members, working alongside NYSUT leaders and legislative staff, increased their advocacy in Albany and in lawmakers' home districts. Lawmakers listened, and the result is a funding increase of $150 per student for community colleges in both the City University and the State University systems.
"The state budget took some positive steps, and our members should be praised for pressing the case for higher education, said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.
But the colleges still have a long way to go to make up for the cuts of recent years, said Ellen Schuler Mauk, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, chair of the NYSUT Higher Education Council and one of two NYSUT Board members who speaks to community college issues on the board.
"We are very proud of our members, who have turned out in great numbers in the last year and advocated very hard for community colleges, Schuler Mauk said. "This funding increase is very important and very helpful, but it's only the beginning. We have been struggling with funding cuts that date back to 2008, so we need a succession of similar increases over the next several years to get back to where we should be, had we not taken such a hard hit.
The groundwork for continued advocacy has already been laid. After last year's budget passed, NYSUT worked very hard with higher education locals on a campaign to continue their advocacy through the summer. NYSUT members at community and four-year college locals maintained contact with lawmakers in their home districts; invited lawmakers to visit campuses; and also continued to visit them and make the case for more funding. That effort helped forge strong connections with a number of lawmakers — connections that will need to be maintained and strengthened as NYSUT presses the point that increased funding to community colleges has to continue beyond this budget.
As Schuler Mauk has noted many times, community colleges throughout SUNY have lost so many full-time faculty members to attrition and cuts that some students have never seen a full-time professor in their classes. The ratio of part-time to full-time faculty at some community colleges has been 3-to-1 for several years, at a time when overall enrollment is more than 246,000 students — which equates to 53 percent of all students attending SUNY.
Erie Community College, with campuses in downtown Buffalo and in the suburban towns of Amherst and Orchard Park, has the capacity for 12,000 students. The enrollment is 14,000, and it's still that high even with a recent 7 percent drop — an expected result of national unemployment figures that have gone up and down, but have generally shown improvement.
At the height of the recession, thousands of New Yorkers turned to community colleges for education and training that ranged from short-term certification courses for a specific technical skill, to full degree programs in fields that were hiring.
"We have to be focused on student-centered services, said Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College and also a NYSUT Board member representing community college concerns.
"The administration has not replaced deans of students, registrars ... there's been a lot of faculty retirements, and they've only replaced three this year. Student advisement suffers, I think, and the retention suffers, when you don't have full-time faculty, he said.
Erie Community College, like several other community college campuses, is finally able to start addressing long-neglected infrastructure issues. The state budget includes $15 million for a new building dedicated to science, math and technology instruction, a plan Sako calls a strong plus for the college.
Erie CC will need to raise $7.5 million for that project, and plans to launch what Sako believes will be the first capital campaign in its history.
Given such positive signs, the time is right for Erie and a number of other community colleges to tackle a longtime point of contention with their county governments. The state created the community college system with the intention that funds would come from three sources: the state, local sponsors and tuition and fees from students. Over the years, the student contribution to community college operating funds has crept up — as it has at Erie — while local sponsor contributions have declined.
"I think the next step is to get the local sponsors to step up to their financial responsibility, Sako said. "Students are paying nearly 50 percent at most of the schools now. The counties have been flat-lining the colleges.