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New York's colleges need relief

New York’s colleges and universities have seen the state slashing support for years. That systematic disinvestment coupled with a declining number of college-aged students has brought colleges and universities to the financial brink. The financial squeeze has left many colleges – both public and independent – forced to reduce student services and hike student costs. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has, not surprisingly, made it all worse.

The State University and City University of New York systems have endured about $56 million in cuts since 2017. Funding to the independent sector has been effectively cut as well. Despite substantial federal government support due to the pandemic, New York’s higher education sector continues to struggle.

That struggle, however, reveals a tale of two higher educational institutions: The well-financed, largest universities are weathering the storm, while smaller four-year colleges and two-year community colleges are getting hammered.

For example, over the past decade, enrollment at SUNY four-year colleges and universities fell a total of nearly 20%, including a loss of 92,000 students. That impact was accelerated by the pandemic, which saw an enrollment decline of nearly 5% alone since Fall 2020.

A closer review shows significant differences within the vast SUNY system. Community colleges have suffered huge enrollment losses. At last count, there were over 50,000 fewer full-time SUNY community colleges students at the end of the decade as compared to the beginning. And without exception, every SUNY community college lost population, some with catastrophic enrollment declines. According to SUNY, community college enrollment is down by more than a third.

In SUNY, there are several types of four-year colleges – those that are considered “comprehensive colleges,” others that are considered technology colleges, and still others university centers. Technology colleges suffered modest declines over the past decade, a bit more than 7%. But the four-year "comprehensive colleges" have suffered a big enrollment decline of nearly 20%.

SUNY's four university centers, on the other hand, have seen their student populations grow by more than 12% over the past decade.

The pandemic has made all these numbers worse, but by looking at a decade-long trend, one can see that the combination of the loss in state aid and a shrinking college-age population have forced a shrinking of the SUNY system.

The trends followed to their logical conclusion may result in colleges – both two and four year – being forced to close. The ones most likely to face such a threat are in areas of the state that have suffered the most economically. Any public official that considers such a move would have to ignore the benefits such institutions have in their communities.

According to SUNY, for every $1 invested in the system, New York derives $8 in economic benefits. Examining that impact on a regional basis, SUNY can be an outsized economic driver. In one hard-hit area of the state, Central New York, SUNY estimates that it contributed 10% of all economic activity in the region.

In terms of driving economic development, there are few programs in New York that can compare in terms of payoffs.

Similar analyses exist documenting the positive economic impacts of the City University system and independent colleges and universities.

One of the many challenges Governor Hochul faces is separating the economic programs for which the rhetoric meets the actual reality from those that are more hype than fact. There have been too many examples of much ballyhooed economic strategies that have ended with taxpayers on the hook yet little or no financial benefits and far too much corruption.

New York’s institutions of higher education, on the other hand, have consistently delivered the goods despite being starved for state resources and being forced to charge more and more to college students and their families.

In about fifty days Governor Hochul will have to propose her first executive budget. How well she separates the economic development “wheat” from the “chaff” may well determine the fate of upstate regions and could affect the governor’s political future.

When it comes to budgeting, betting on a sure thing makes more sense than relying on rhetorical flourishes. Investments in colleges are a sure bet.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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