Before taking over as Erie Community College president in 2008, Jack F. Quinn Jr. worked as a middle school English teacher, Hamburg town supervisor, a member of Congress for a dozen years and as president of the Cassidy & Associates lobbying firm.
It was the depth of Quinn's local knowledge, fundraising ?experience and connections in government that led to his academic appointment.
Quinn is leading the two-year college – which boasts 14,000 students at three campuses in Amherst, Buffalo and Orchard Park – at a time when community colleges are asked to play a larger role in the economy even as government funding for higher education is flat-lining.
ECC in recent years has built partnerships with area companies to better prepare its students to fill jobs in advanced manufacturing, biomedicine and other emerging fields.
The college serves students who don't have high school diplomas, who are the first in their families to attend college, single parents, veterans, people training for a new career and those who will transfer to four-year colleges after earning an associate degree.
ECC has invested $25 million into the building on its City Campus but now must address its aging North Campus as it seeks to lure hundreds of Erie County residents each semester who choose to take classes at Niagara County Community College.
>Q: What did you learn in politics in Washington that you've been able to apply to your job as a community college president?
A: In New York State, community colleges are funded in an interesting way. About a third of our money comes from state government. About a third of our funding comes from county government. And the other third is raised through tuition. So all of the relationships that I had cultivated and made over those years that I was in government, at all levels, has helped me to position Erie Community College in a place where we can get the biggest bang for our buck and do the best things for the students and their families in Western New York.
>Q: What is the role of ECC or other community colleges?
A: A lot of people think we teach classes for an associate's degree, which we do, but that's only part of what I call our business model. We do millions of dollars in economic development. We train the young men and women who will be in the manufacturing sector of Western New York. And of course we have a robust business in the GED business of Pathways [to Success], where students come to us without high school diplomas but need to be ready for the work force or for higher education. And then we have a very big part of our business where our two-year associate degree students go on to four-year schools, at UB, Buffalo State, Canisius – everybody around here.
>Q: Manufacturers and government officials warn this country doesn't have enough skilled manufacturing workers. How is ECC closing this skills gap?
A: The first thing we're doing is listening to the manufacturers to tell us what it is they need. There's one thing I'm proud of — we bought a piece of equipment, it cost us $240,000, I think. It's a CNC water jet machine. And it trains people on how to do what used to be tool-and-die work [that] we now do with lasers and water, so it's safer and more exact. Five colleges have this equipment in the United States. ... And the instructors that teach that have 100 percent job placement.
>Q: You're making a push as a school into green jobs, into biomedical, advanced manufacturing. Why are you looking at those segments of the economy?
A: Because we're hearing from the folks who run those businesses that's where they're going to need the jobs.
>Q: And you're doing all of this with stagnant, or declining, public support, from the county, from the state?
A: Stagnant, for certain, with the county. And it's been stagnant for six or seven years. State, we got a little bump up last year, which we're grateful for. We're going to ask for a little bit more. And then the third ingredient is tuition. So our tuition went up last year. And it's likely it'll go up again. We're $3,900 a year. A little bit less than $2,000 a semester. What a bargain.
>Q: Charge-backs — money paid by one county when its residents attend community college in another county — cost Erie County millions of dollars each year. What can ECC do to convince students who now go to another community college to stay home in Erie County?
A: The trustees' answer is resounding and unanimous: It is to invest in that North Campus. Because the biggest share of this charge-back, the majority of all of that money, is in the town of Amherst and Clarence and Williamsville and Tonawanda, because they're going up to Sanborn [to NCCC]. We took a semi-scientific look at this and said, Why? And when we looked at the students with Erie County ZIP codes who are enrolled there, and what they study, we teach 9 out of the 10 subject areas they're studying. So it's not because they're not finding what they want to study at ECC.
>Q: How does ECC go forward — as a three-campus school, or will it consolidate?
A: The trustees are very clear that our geography is a strong point for us. There's no question. And so we will move forward, to answer your question, and invest in all three campuses. We're not going to leave any of them to disrepair.