Colleges take enrollment – and financial – hit as pandemic grinds on

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERThe SUNY Schenectady campus in Schenectady is pictured on Wednesday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

PETER R. BARBER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The SUNY Schenectady campus in Schenectady is pictured on Wednesday.

Enrollments at SUNY Schenectady and Fulton-Montgomery County Community College dropped 15 percent this fall. Union and Skidmore college lost out on millions of dollars of room and board revenue.

And The College of Saint Rose on Tuesday night announced the elimination of 25 academic programs, including art and music degrees, a mathematics program and chemistry degree, and a handful of education graduate degrees.

“Many of the programs have declining or historically low enrollment,” the college wrote in a release announcing the cuts. “Other degrees or certificate programs were eliminated because the cost to maintain them was higher than the revenue generated by enrollment.”

The college has struggled financially for years and imposed multiple rounds of budget cuts and program reductions in recent years, including over $8 million in administrative and staff reductions that included layoffs, cuts to salary and freezing the staff pension plan.

The latest cuts will result in the elimination of 33 full-time professor positions out of the college’s 151 overall in the next year. Another eight full-time visiting faculty positions will be eliminated; the plan is expected to save the district nearly $6 million. The impacted programs represent about 10 percent of the school’s undergraduate students and 4 percent of its graduate students.

“These changes mean the loss of academic programs that are of high quality, valuable to society, and a significant part of the college’s history,” Saint Rose interim President Marcia White said in a statement. “Sadly, after much thought and extensive analysis, we have made the determination that we can no longer afford to maintain them.”

Every college faces a different outlook, but all face the headwinds of the pandemic. The educational limitations forced by the pandemic exacerbated the years-long enrollment slide of community colleges – which comes at a point when the overall number of high school graduates continues to shrink.

Enrollment in the fall at SUNY Schenectady dipped to just over 4,000 students, a 15 percent drop from fall 2019, according to campus-level enrollments provided by SUNY Central. In Schenectady, the community college’s enrollment has dropped 40 percent since it peaked at over 6,700 students in fall 2011. College officials have hoped to stanch the enrollment bleed for multiple years, but the pandemic magnified the difficulty of drawing students into nearly every program.

SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono did not grant an interview request earlier this week but in a response provided through a spokesperson college officials cited the pandemic and the inability to offer in-person classes for many programs, as well as the broader economic, health and family challenges facing so many, as leading causes of the enrollment drop.

“The college believes that enrollment has been impacted by several factors, the main one being COVID,” according to the response. “Several of our key programs – culinary, music and aviation – are by nature very hands on and not being able to do that can be frustrating to students.”

College officials are working to promote its programs to adult learners and striving to provide as many supports as possible to students in the virtual setting.

“Typically, community colleges are a refuge during tough economic times, providing workforce training and skill advancement education,” according to the college’s response. “However, with so many jobs being lost over the past year combined with the uncertainty and concerns over another statewide or regional shutdown, people are not sure if they should or can start their education now.”

At Fulton-Montgomery Community College enrollment also dropped nearly 15 percent from fall 2019 to this year – as the college’s enrollment fell below 2,000 students for the first time in the past 10 years.

Union College also saw fewer students enroll this fall than in typical years, with international enrollments down and more students than usual paying a deposit but deferring their academic start a year, said Matt Malatesta, the college’s vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment.

The college in the fall enrolled 466 students in its freshmen class, down from 550 in 2019, or about a 15 percent decline. Malatesta said 30 students deferred the start to their freshman year until next fall and another dozen plan to start in January. He said usually around 10 students will defer. The freshman class at Union this year is the smallest freshman class in at least a dozen years, he said. The number of new international students fell from 67 in 2019, a relative high mark, to 34 this fall.

Union and other colleges are already deep into the current admissions cycle, with the first early deadlines already passed. The pandemic has grounded the college’s admissions counselors, some of whom would normally travel the globe recruiting students, and the college has had to strictly limit campus visits. While the college still allowed limited visits, it only does so on weekends or breaks, depriving prospective students a chance to experience the true feel of campus.

“So few people have had a chance to dig in and kick the tires,” Malatesta said in an interview last week. “It’s gonna be harder for kids to want to make a commitment to any particular college.”

But Malatesta was also hopeful enrollment at Union would start to bounce back by next school year. He said whereas last year’s prospective students were forced to make a college decision at a time when it was not clear whether campuses would even reopen, current prospective students may have more hope in the form of vaccines that college life may return to something closer to normal by the fall.

“I would surmise that this year will be better for Union and many colleges,” Malatesta said. “Things look promising that these students will be attending the Union College we promise…. Last year’s group was awaiting to what Union College was going to look like.”

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