SUNY enrollment has fallen 10% over the past decade. Here's why.

Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau
  • SUNY enrollment fell nearly 10% between 2009 and 2019
  • The decline is a concern to SUNY: It wants more students to attend college and it needs the revenue
  • The enrollment dip comes as advocates call for more state aid for SUNY
  • Check below for enrollment data by college

ALBANY - Enrollment at the State University of New York dropped again this fall, resulting in the number of students at its 64 campuses to decline by nearly 10% over the past decade.

The latest SUNY figures, which showed enrollment dropping nearly 1.5% since fall 2018, demonstrates the ongoing struggle of the state's colleges to attract and retain students, particularly at community colleges.

It will mark the ninth year in a row SUNY had an enrollment drop and comes even after the state three years ago made tuition free for income-eligible students, the records obtained by the USA TODAY Network New York showed.

SUNY officials said they have been implementing initiatives to attract and retain students, saying that reversing the trend is critical to the future of the nation's largest public college system.

"We are pretty aggressively confident that we are not only going to stem the decline, but actually begin to grow enrollment," said Robert Megna, SUNY's senior vice chancellor and chief operating officer.

The problem for SUNY is multi-faceted. Fewer students are going to community colleges because of a robust economy that makes it easier to enter the workforce than to take classes.

Enrollment at New York's 30 community colleges fell a whopping 19% between 2009 and this fall, SUNY records show, a drop of more than 45,000 students.

Population decline in upstate New York, meanwhile, has resulted in fewer high school students for campuses to recruit. Also, fewer college students are going into teaching careers, which was once a top draw to SUNY.

Enrollment at SUNY's 13 "comprehensive colleges," such as Brockport, New Paltz and Purchase, fell by about 10,000 students over the past decade, a roughly 11% decline.

"These campuses are in extreme competition for a shrinking number of students upstate," said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union that represents educators on many state campuses.

There has been one bright spot in the SUNY enrollment picture: The number of students attending its four university centers have increased since 2009, led by a 23% spike at Binghamton University. Only the University at Albany had a small drop over that stretch.

How SUNY is responding to enrollment challenge

The university centers have overcome the loss of population in New York: more than 1 million people have left since 2010, mainly upstate, and enrollment in public schools decreased 10% since 2000.

That impacts college recruiting, Kowal said. Campuses now have to focus on attracting more New York City students to upstate colleges.

But that has proven difficult for some colleges, it appears: Buffalo State and Empire State College each had a 26% drop in students over the past decade, SUNY data showed, followed by Fredonia and Potsdam.

"The campuses have to attract students from New York City who will come out here and then persist," Kowal said Tuesday from Buffalo.

"That’s the real challenge."

SUNY officials said they are having success with programs aimed at increasing enrollment, such as bolstering efforts to help community college students from dropping out, adding new apprenticeships and implementing new workforce development opportunities.

"It’s startling to know that 40% of New Yorkers have a high school diploma or less," said Johanna Duncan-Poitier, senior vice chancellor for community colleges.

"So if you need more education, the State University of New York — with its community colleges, technical schools, four-year campuses, university centers — are pivotal to the strength of our state."

New York also has lost 7% of its out-of-state students between 2014 and 2018 as out-of-state tuition rose by as much as 84% since 2011, a recent USA TODAY Network review found. Nationally, colleges have added more out-of-state students to buck enrollment declines.

Jacquelyn Malcolm, spokeswoman at Buffalo State, said the college believes enrollment should improve in the coming years: "We have plans in place and have taken action to build back enrollment."

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Community colleges in New York react

Community colleges acknowledged the challenges they face.

Enrollment fell 45% over the past decade at Tompkins Cortland Community College, the most of any of them. It fell 43% at Clinton Community College in the North Country and 38% at Monroe Community College in Rochester.

Westchester was down 23% over the decade.

"In response to increased competition over returning adult students and a smaller pool of high school graduates, MCC is focused on connecting students to expanded support services that help them transition to college, overcome basic needs insecurities and unforeseen financial emergencies, graduate on time with little or no debt and secure meaningful careers upon graduation," college spokesperson Hency Yuen-Eng said.

The college, for example, was recently awarded a $2 million federal grant to expand support services for first-generation and low-income students.

And it has a new Return to Complete program that defers debt on college costs for students until their graduate, if they return to college after leaving more than three years ago.

SUNY officials said their biggest opportunity for growth may be online classes. MCC said students can now get college degrees completely or partially online, and online enrollment there jumped 6% over the past year.

"Online had the ability to reverse the actual decline," Megna said. "This is one area where SUNY has done pretty good with."

SUNY Broome President Kevin Drumm said the teenage population decline in the Southern Tier is having an effect on enrollment, but the college has offset it by getting more existing high school students to enroll and targeting adult students.

Its enrollment dropped 5.4% over the past decade, one of the lowest amounts in the state. Still, the college has cut its number of adjunct professors, he said in a statement.

"While proportionally more local students are choosing SUNY Broome and also our older, working-student numbers are increasing by design, total enrollment has been declining along with our teenage population," he said.

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SUNY tuition hikes or more state funding?

Rockland Community College said its decline in enrollment, about 7% over the past decade, is lower than national averages in recent years.

Nationally, students enrolled in undergraduate programs fell 7% between 2010 and 2017, USA TODAY reported.

Nationally, college enrollment fell 1.7% last year compared to 2018 and 3.4% at community colleges, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The year over year drop for Rockland was 1.4%, and the college recently received a $3 million grant to assist Hispanic students and create a Career Skills Academy.

The retention programs seem to be working: Graduation rates for first-time, full-time associate degree students in SUNY’s community colleges are up 7% in recent years, system officials said.

The enrollment data comes amid an ongoing debate over SUNY funding.

UUP's Kowal said as much as 70% of the revenue at some SUNY campuses fall on students through tuition, room and board and fees — which now average $22,500 a year.

The union and higher-education advocates are pressing Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to increase SUNY funding next year.

Existing tuition programs already help 67% of SUNY students to graduate debt free. In 2017, the state enacted the Excelsior Program that provides free tuition, now at $7,070, to those whose family incomes are less than $125,000 a year.

Since 2011, however, SUNY has added $2.5 billion in new tuition hikes, even when assistance programs are factored in, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group, a good-government group funded in part through voluntary student fees.

Tuition rose $300 a year between 2011 and 2015, and this fall it rose $200 for the third year in a row for students who do not receive tuition assistance.

State officials countered aid to SUNY and CUNY is up 30% to $7.2 billion Cuomo took office in 2011, and 55% of full-time students now attend SUNY and CUNY tuition free.

“The facts are clear: State support for SUNY and CUNY under this administration has increased by 30% while tuition assistance, including the Excelsior Scholarship for the middle class, has made it possible for more than half their full-time undergraduate students to pay no tuition at all," said Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state Budget Division.

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