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Suffolk County Community College proposes tuition freeze for next year

Suffolk County Community College has proposed tuition of

Suffolk County Community College has proposed tuition of $5,470 next year for county residents who attend full time. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Suffolk County Community College plans to freeze tuition at $5,470 for county residents who attend full time, even with declining revenues because of enrollment drops and higher costs from a return to on-campus learning, college officials Wednesday.

The freeze, the second in two years, comes as the college expects a 5.4% drop in full-time enrollment next year, officials told a Suffolk legislative committee Wednesday.

Full-time enrollment has declined by about 30% since 2010, according to the Suffolk County Legislature’s Budget Review Office.

Full-time enrollment has declined as more students have chosen to attend school part-time or to attend four-year colleges, college officials said.

Also, costs could rise next year because of contractual staff raises and an increase in the number of in-person classes, from 10% of classes this year to 50%, officials told legislators.

If social distancing is required, the college could have to spend more on staffing and cleaning, officials said.

The college board of trustees has approved a $212.2 million operating budget for 2021-2020, compared with $199 million in spending this year, officials said.

Because of expected lower enrollment and higher operating costs, the college is seeking $46.12 million in county funding, an increase of 3%, or $1.3 million, documents show.

"One of the primary reasons why we're asking for the additional support is to really help us to shore [up] our efforts in retaining students and also getting the students," said Mark Harris, the college’s vice president of business and financial affairs.

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office is recommending the county increase its contribution by 1.5%, or $671,691.

Spokesman Derek Poppe cited a 2017 report by a committee of Bellone administration officials, the legislature and SCCC that recommended the county raise its contribution by 1.5% a year for five years.

A larger county contribution would be "unsustainable," the report said.

Poppe also said the college received a 3% increase in county funding for 2019-2020.

College officials noted the county’s contribution stayed flat in 2020-2021 as Suffolk struggled with fiscal issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state funds 23% of the college budget each year, and the county, 22%. Most of the remainder comes from tuition, fees and grants, according to legislative budget office.

"We didn't even ask the legislature for an increase last year because we understood how difficult things were," said Benjamin Zwirn, college legislative affairs director.

The college also cut pay and deferred longevity payments for staff, Zwirn said.

"This year," Zwirn said, "things are different."

Zwirn cited projections by Suffolk budget officials Tuesday that the county could have a general fund surplus of up to $547 million by the end of 2022 because of an influx of federal pandemic aid and increased sales tax revenues.

The school expects to run a surplus this year of $8.9 million, because the switch to remote learning reduced staffing costs, officials said.

That will help the school build a record reserve fund balance of $26.9 million, according to the legislative budget office.

But the college faces an estimated $4.8 million deficit in 2021-2022, which will require tapping the reserve fund, officials said.

The college is expected to receive $45 million from the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan through 2022; about half the funding must go for direct aid to students.

The county legislature will vote later on the college budget proposal, using recommendations from a legislative working group, Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said Wednesday.

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