SUNY campuses work to attract students as enrollment dips

Classroom Progress Report

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Enrollment continues to decline at State University of New York campuses amid the ongoing pandemic.  Since 2010, the SUNY system has seen enrollment shrink by roughly 20%. Jim Malatras, the Chancellor of the State University of New York, said it has been a challenge over the past decade. 

The pandemic hasn’t made it any easier. Malatras said that over the past year, SUNY enrollment has gone down 4.7%. He said this number is actually better than some of their partner institutions across the country. He attributes this to the SUNY system keeping its doors open during the pandemic. However, they still saw an impact.

“From the fall into the spring, we lost about 22,000 students. That’s a big drop-off. It was tough for our students last year, we can be honest about it, right?” Malatras said. “Students survived last year, they didn’t thrive, they didn’t really particularly enjoy the experience.”

Across the nation at colleges, learning went remote, some dorms closed, and financial hardships from the pandemic impacted families, all of which could have played a role in the number of students applying for college. At SUNY Geneseo, for example, they have closed three dorms this fall to deal with enrollment declines. One of which is now being used for quarantine students.

“When you look at it just within a three-year period, we’ve seen about a 17% decline and largely due to the pandemic,” said Costas Solomou, the Vice President for Enrollment Management at SUNY Geneseo. “The pandemic has really shaken higher education to its core. In a way it’s created a sense of urgency for us, all of us collectively, to really look at how can we better support students and to rethink our collective priorities.”

 Solomou said that since last fall, the school has seen a 12% increase in first-time enrolled students compared to last fall. This year, there are 4,545 students enrolled in total. However, that is a roughly 2,500 person decline in the student body from more than 10 years ago. Solomou said they are working on efforts to attract more students to the campus, including focusing on marginalized communities that have been left behind during the pandemic. 

“We know that many underserved students—low-income students, students of color, and first-gen students—were left behind during this pandemic period, and continue to be left behind,” Solomou said. “We’ve been doubling our efforts to try to grow the number of students in these marginalized groups. We’ve revamped our financial aid process, we’ve moved to a need-based model which takes our financial aid and our merit awards in places that are based on the estimated family contribution of a family. So, we’re looking at putting more funding with low-income students and less funding in other areas.”

Solomou also said they have revamped their evaluation process that looks at environmental factors, saying he knows test grades and GPAs are not the only identification of academic successes, and these environmental factors could play a role in a student’s success.

The school has also built partnerships and new pathways with students. More recently, signing an agreement with Corning Community College and Lake Eric College of Osteopathic Medicine. They are also currently working with FLCC and MCC.

Malatras said the entire SUNY system is working on focusing on marginalized communities, too.  “Our underrepresented communities is where we’re seeing the biggest drop-off. Our applications are down upwards of 40% in some underrepresented communities, the communities who need public higher education the most because that is what’s going to lift them out of poverty or get them into a career and give them social and economic mobility,” he said. “They’re the ones that need the job, but they’re the ones not applying, largely because our campuses are outside of those communities.”

Along with SUNY Geneseo, other colleges are feeling an impact from a decline in enrollment. SUNY Brockport is down roughly 16% in enrollment from 2010. At Monroe Community College, they have seen nearly a 50% decrease in enrollment since 2010. 

“The enrollment trends at Monroe Community College over the last decade have been consistent with what we’re seeing nationally for community colleges, with the enrollment declines. What we’re facing here in our community has been the shift in demographics in Monroe in the surrounding counties and what we’re doing to rebuild and reimagine how we’re serving our community,” said Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, the Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Monroe Community College.

Casalinuovo-Adams said during the pandemic, there were additional difficulties for students at their community college. “Certainly our students face challenges that maybe other students aren’t facing at the other institutions,” she said. “Housing insecurity, food insecurity, financial insecurity, and we have had prior to COVID, a strong focus on ensuring that our students had easy access and connection to those resources, and we are continuing to focus on those services during the pandemic and we’ll continue to focus it on after the pandemic.”

The community college is currently working towards bringing more students to campus and hopes there will be an uptick in enrollment, with more people looking to going back to school or getting an education during the pandemic. “What we can do is look at our data, look at our trends, but also take a look at who the students are coming in the door and what their needs are that always the data doesn’t always show that,” Casalinuovo-Adams said.

“Meeting the needs of our students where they’re at is part of our focus. And hopefully, we will see students wanting to come back,” she said. Casalinuovo-Adams added that Monroe Community College is relatively affordable and provides many scholarships for students thanks to their foundation and community partners.

So why has enrollment declined overall in the past decade at SUNY? Malatras said that, along with the pandemic, other reasons for a decline over the past decade could be due to declining birth rates, more competition for schools, and “cultural divides.”

“The math doesn’t add up,” he said. “If enrollment’s down in the past 10 years nationwide, including at SUNY, at the same time where 70% of all new jobs being created needs some sort of post-secondary education. Enrollment should be going up, right? Just common sense would suggest enrollment goes up in that case.”

To help attract more students, Malatras said SUNY has created a new program called SUNY For All, which focuses on the individual student’s needs. “How do we make it easier for them? How do we go into their committees and say, ‘We’ll give you the flexible scheduling that you need? How do we work around your schedule? How do we work around your life? How do we provide you opportunities?'” he said. “That’s what’s going to be the main challenge, and if we can solve that challenge, I think you’ll see enrollment go up across the SUNY system.”

The chancellor is also hopeful that with campuses opening up more this year and with students vaccinated, enrollment numbers could go up. “Going into this year, we’re really proud of what we’ve done. We have close to 100% vaccination rate of all of our students. Every one of our campuses are fully reopened again, we’re doing sporting events. We’re doing concerts,” he said. “Our students have been phenomenal.”

Not all SUNY schools saw a decrease in enrollment. Doctoral centers, like private elite colleges, are up around 12% in enrollment over the past 10 years. To learn more about SUNY schools or getting an education, click here.

Take a look at 10-year enrollment trends across SUNY:

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