BY KATHY KAHN
Special to the Rockland County Times
With the cost of community college “chargebacks” becoming increasingly unsustainable for New York’s 62 counties, many are now passing those costs down to local cities and towns.
New York Community College Trustees’ forum, “Operating Chargebacks: A Critical Component in the Funding Partnership for New York’s Community Colleges,” held on January 30 at Rockland Community College, is beginning a dialogue it hopes will eventually find a resolution to the chargeback issue.
It was fitting the forum was held at RCC, since the two-year college is among those which will now be receiving those chargeback funds from Rockland’s five towns, rather than from the county. With its near junk-bond rating and nearly $2 million in outstanding debt, Rockland County has joined with 13 others in passing down the cost of chargebacks to cities and towns within their borders to make ends meet.
With more than 70 percent of RCC’s full-and-part-time student body coming to the campus from out of county, RCC received more than $3 million in chargeback fees for the 2011-2012 academic year. Town of Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack, a panelist at the NYCCT forum, shared his displeasure at the county’s recent decision to bill his town and four others for the chargebacks it used to pay for students attending RCC with those in attendance.
“Clarkstown provides 60 percent of the sales tax to the county,” said Gromack, “but of the total sales tax accrued, the county retains 94 percent and re-distributes the remaining six percent back to the five towns in this county. Now, the county is adding ‘chargeback’ fees for out-of-county students to our budgets. “In the past two years, Clarkstown has presented a zero increase budget to its residents. This year, our budget will rise six percent due to the county’s decision,” continued Gromack. “This is an unsustainable burden on our already over-taxed residents, but current state legislation allows this. We have no control and no voice in the community college system…the policy is unfair.”
Counties typically set aside a certain amount of funding in yearly budgets to pay for the one-third portion of students’ community college tuition, as required by state law. When a student chooses to attend a community college in a county outside their own, the home county is mandated to pay a fee to the host county to cover tuition costs. Currently, there is nothing in the law that prevents counties from passing those chargebacks down to the cities and towns in its jurisdiction.
Among the speakers at the panel discussion were David Mathis, NYCCT Chair; Dr. Cliff Wood, RCC’s president; Stephen Acquario, executive director for the New York State Association of Counties; and Gromack.
Neish Dawkins, a student trustee from Westchester Community College, said the original formula for tuition: 1/3 to be paid by the state; 1/3 by the county; and 1/3 by the student –needs to be restored. “I am currently paying 46 percent of my college tuition,” said Dawkins. “For many, this can mean they are unable to continue and obtain their degree. Costs are continuing to climb to such a degree that the premise of community college being an affordable alternative for low-and-middle income residents is becoming less and less a reality.
David Mathis, chair of NYCCT, said the purpose of the meeting was to determine how best the SUNY system can keep community college affordable and accessible without breaking the municipal bank. “Chargebacks allow flexibility for students to attend the college of their choice, but a concern for me is that in today’s economy, we need to find a reasonable way to pay for it.”
The January 31 meeting was followed by another in Albany on February 4. Community college trustees met with county executives and others to discuss the chargeback issue, which is not exclusive to the state’s community college system. “High schools have classes where half the students are taking regular curriculum requirements, while the other half is getting college credit for attending—yet they are getting the same instruction. Changes need to occur to make New York’s educational system truly affordable and sustainable.”