After a decade of persistent enrollment declines, increasing tuition rates, and lagging state support, New York’s community colleges faced enormous challenges. That was before the pandemic.
Enrollment at both SUNY Schenectady and Fulton-Montgomery Community College dropped about 15 percent in the fall, and both colleges last week indicated enrollment numbers continued to slide even more going into the spring semester as many classes remained online.
“The chorus among all of those students is right now I can’t even think about school,” SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono said in a Friday interview. “They have lost jobs, they have become teachers, they are [providing daycare] … and we also have students who have lost loved ones.”
By exacerbating the underlying negative trend in enrollments, and what community college advocates argue has been lagging state support, the pandemic has created a perilous moment for many community colleges fighting to remain an affordable academic option for local students.
“We are reaching a critical juncture for community colleges, particularly small community colleges, and something has to change,” FMCC acting President Greg Truckenmiller said.
Noting 20 percent budget withholdings this year and the governor’s proposal to limit increases in state support to community colleges, along with flat financial support from Fulton and Montgomery counties in recent years, Truckenmiller said the college’s current trajectory is not financially sustainable.
“If nothing changes, you would be looking at something like the state having to come in and come up with a solution for us,” he said, suggesting a merger or emergency bailout could be possible if the college’s finances continue to deteriorate. “It’s not a trend that’s sustainable.”
A recent analysis of the last decade of tuition rates at New York community colleges by the New York Public Interest Research group underscored how community college financial challenges have shifted the tuition burden to students. The non-partisan public policy research nonprofit found that tuition at SUNY community colleges far outstripped inflation over the last decade and even grew faster than the tuition rates of the state’s four-year colleges and universities.
Tuition rates at FMCC grew faster than any of the other 28 community colleges in the state, according to the NYPIRG analysis. The college has increased its tuition from $3,194 in fall 2010 to $5,040 this school year, or a 58 percent increase over a decade. Over that period of time, FMCC went from having the state’s third cheapest community college tuition to the state’s 14th cheapest tuition.
“It’s not where any of us want to be,” Truckenmiller said of the report’s finding. “We pride ourselves on being affordable.”
Truckenmiller said the college has shrunk its budget by 10 percent in the past decade, slashing staffing and other expenses over the years. He said the college was exploring ways to share mandatory positions with other schools as route to save more money.
“We have made cuts to our budget, our budget has shrunk as our enrollment costs have shrunk,” Truckenmiller said. “We have reduced our staff size pretty much as far as we can go.”
The college’s local government partners have kept funding to the college flat over the past three years, and with certain overhead expenses that can’t be cut the college over the years has turned to students to help increase revenues to the school.
He said enrollment continued to fall from fall to spring: usually the college expects about 90 percent of fall enrollment in the spring but this year the spring numbers were about 85 percent of the fall numbers, which already marked a significant drop. But he said the college still presents a more affordable option than most other higher education options and that college officials are working to keep it that way.
Blair Horner, NYPIRG executive director, said community colleges face a nasty mix of financial stresses that includes sliding enrollment and a state funding formula that doesn’t keep up with the needs of schools. Some colleges see increased funding from their local counties each year, but some colleges have had flat support at the local level. And as colleges shift the cost burden to students, Horner said that could further exacerbate enrollment declines.
“The students are picking up more of the burden, and we believe far more of a burden than they should be under the law,” Horner said. “It may well be that the state is coming to a crisis in terms of community colleges. In many places in upstate New York, the community college is an economic engine, and if the state is not feeding it there are going to be problems.”
Horner said the NYPIRG report was partly meant to draw awareness to the challenges facing community colleges — noting policymakers often focus on four-year colleges. He said lawmakers should ensure the state’s tuition assistance grants to low-income students cover the costs of community college tuition and ensure college’s don’t lose needed state support if enrollments continue to fall. Community colleges have long called for establishing a funding floor from the state to stabilize year-to-year financial changes for colleges.
Like FMCC, SUNY Schenectady also saw a smaller-than-usual retention of students from the fall to spring semesters, college officials said Friday. In a typical year, the college expects to lose about one-quarter of the fall enrollment by spring; this year enrollment dropped by over a third from fall to spring.
“We have seen a significant drop, a more pronounced drop than usual,” Moono said, noting many students have found virtual learning difficult or set college aside as they deal with more urgent life concerns.
Tuition at SUNY Schenectady grew by 40 percent over the past decade, and the college is the fourth cheapest community college in the state. Unlike local government support to FMCC, Schenectady County has increased the college’s local funding by 2 percent each of the last few years, something Moono said demonstrated the county’s strong support of the college.
Looking forward, Moono said he hopes the college will be able to offer more in-person classes in the fall and said the college will have to focus even more on the community’s workforce needs as it looks to adapt to broader societal changes in the wake of the pandemic.
“There are a lot of lessons learned from the pandemic, a lot of lessons,” Moono said.