The economy can only explain so much.
It can explain why community college enrollment ebbs and flows, peaking when jobs are scarce and dropping when work is plentiful.
What it can’t explain is why SUNY Schenectady’s enrollment has fallen off so much more dramatically than other two-year institutions.
Between 2011 and 2018, SUNY Schenectady’s enrollment dropped 22 percent – more than any other community college in the region. Between last fall and this fall, it plunged another 8 percent.
That’s bad news for a critical Schenectady institution, and it comes at a time when two- and four-year colleges throughout the country face an increasingly uncertain, even bleak, future.
Which is why it’s disappointing to see SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono suggest his school is simply experiencing an enrollment slump typical of a strong economy.
What makes this slump especially concerning is that it’s expected to get worse.
The reason for this “coming college enrollment bust,” as a piece by BloombergOpinion writer Justin Fox termed it, is the nation’s declining birth rate.
“The number of public-school kindergartners in the U.S. began falling in 2014, and that decline – offset modestly by immigration – will continue to work its way through the K-12 system in the coming years,” Fox wrote. “By the second half of the 2020s, colleges and universities should start feeling it.”
If colleges want to survive, they’ll need to adapt.
They’ll need to examine their course and degree offerings and make sure they’re providing what students need and want.
Schools are already making an effort to do this, not always successfully.
SUNY Schenectady launched a casino and gaming management degree program in 2013, only to discontinue it because enrollment dwindled to nothing.
Attracting more students will require developing and enhancing programs that appeal to them – something that the school’s ill-fated casino and gaming management degree suggests might be easier said than done.
If there’s one group that’s likely to benefit from the coming crisis in higher education, it’s the students themselves.
Faced with a declining pool of potential students, colleges will be forced to change – to reconsider how they do business as part of a greater effort to stay vital in the 21st century. Perhaps they’ll revamp their curriculum, or focus more intently on retention or – god forbid – lower tuition.
Moono is right that the economy will eventually weaken, and more students will enroll in community colleges.
What’s needed, though, is a plan for weathering the coming storm in higher education. SUNY Schenectady’s declining enrollment is a problem, and unless officials come up with a strategy to address it, it will continue to get worse.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]