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Foss: Is free tuition hurting private colleges?

Foss: Is free tuition hurting private colleges?

Whatever the reason for decline in enrollment, universities facing something of an existential crisis
Foss: Is free tuition hurting private colleges?
Schenectady High School held its college fair earlier this fall.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Is the state's Excelsior Scholarship program hurting private colleges? 

The Excelsior Scholarship provides qualifying students free tuition to New York's public colleges and universities. According to Gov.  Andrew Cuomo's office, 22,000 students are receiving free tuition through this program, which went into effect this year. 

That's a lot of students, and a new report, from the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, suggests that the Excelsior Scholarship might be impacting private college enrollment, just as the state's private colleges warned that it would. 

Of course, faithful readers might recall that one of the reasons I warmed up to the Excelsior Scholarship was the fact that private colleges were so opposed to it. 

These schools have been jacking up their tuition for years and asking students to take on ever-increasing levels of debt. 

If the Excelsior Scholarship disrupted the status quo by inspiring more students to seek out cost-effective alternatives, well, was that such a terrible thing? 

I didn't think so, but if I ran a private college, I might feel differently, especially if the school I ran was experiencing a sharp decline in enrollment. 

According to a CICU chart titled "Unintended Consequences of The Excelsior Scholarship Program," private colleges in the Capital Region will see their enrollment drop by an estimated 4,351 this year and their workforces decline by 2,646. 

Statewide, private colleges will see enrollment drop by 54,079, and their workforces decline by 44,693. 

These are significant declines, and they suggest that something is going on. 

But what? 

Is it fair to blame the Excelsior Scholarship for whatever ails the state's private colleges? Or is there more to the story? 

It's too early to say, of course, but I'm going to go with "more to the story." 

Colleges throughout the country are experiencing enrollment declines, but these declines have nothing to do with the Excelsior Scholarship, which isn't available outside of New York. 

According to an article on The Hechinger Report, a website that covers trends in education, college enrollment has decreased for five straight years. 

"There were just over 18 million students enrolled in higher education nationally in the semester that just ended — 2.4 million fewer than there were in the fall of 2011," the article states. 

While it's difficult to know exactly why college enrollment is on the decline, there are plenty of theories. 

As the cost of college has risen, students are more likely to question the value of a college degree. An improving workforce means there are more options for people who want to get a job and start a career. The number of high school graduates is dropping, which means the number of potential college students is dropping, too. 

Whatever the reason for the decline in college enrollment, it's becoming increasingly clear that colleges and universities are facing something of an existential crisis. 

I won't deny that the Excelsior Scholarship might be having an impact on New York's private colleges. 

But it's probably not the whole story. 

And until New York's private colleges recognize that, their enrollment doldrums will continue. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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