CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated SUNY's COVID-19 vaccination policy. While students accessing SUNY facilities in-person are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the requirements don't apply to faculty and staff. SUNY says faculty and staff are “strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.”

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ALBANY — State University of New York officials will increase alternative schedules and course offerings for adult students as one of the nation’s largest university systems faces historic enrollment decline exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

SUNY’s total enrollment is down 4.7%, or 18,600 students across its 64 campuses in one year from fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 enrollment numbers. SUNY has 92,386 fewer students than it did 10 years ago — a downward change of 19.7%.

Applications were down 9% across the system this spring. Only SUNY’s doctoral program showed gains of 0.2% year-over-year and up 1% since fall 2019 before the start of the COVID pandemic.

“This is a moment in time where we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘How do we do better?’” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras told The Daily News of Batavia. “The declining enrollment environment is not just a SUNY issue — it’s a national issue of higher education.”

Adapting to more flexible course schedules and opportunities to meet changing student needs is critical, he said, but only a part of the larger issue of education equity in poor and minority communities, which often lack investments in businesses, education and infrastructure.

“How do we connect to those individuals who have been left behind or who don’t think are worth it?” Malatras asked. “It’s not really an enrollment challenge, it’s an equity challenge. The enrollment numbers are just telling you a symptom of the larger problem.”

Learners ages 25 to 44 years old make up SUNY’s fastest-growing demographic for students in the middle of a career transition.

“They’re going to go to a labor training center or they’re going to go to us,” the chancellor added.

SUNY Geneseo has 4,572 students this semester according to preliminary fall 2021 data — a nearly 7% decrease in one year since fall 2020. Enrollment has decreased about 19.3% at the Livingston County campus over the last decade, or 1,092 fewer students each semester since 2011.

Administrators from SUNY Geneseo declined to comment for this story.

Genesee Community College had 4,645 students this semester, or a decline of 1.9%, according to preliminary fall 2021 data. But additional students have enrolled since, reversing the trend to a 3.1% increase in one year, said Justin M. Johnston, vice president of development and external affairs and the executive director of the GCC Foundation.

“The pandemic caused a number of recruitment challenges, mostly relating to the inability to have an in-person presence in local and feeder high schools,” Johnston said. “Nevertheless, GCC’s status as a leader in online and hybrid learning has supported our efforts in navigating these ever-changing waters. While applications for new students were down 20% compared to the year prior, our staff was persistent in personalized applicant outreach efforts, which resulted in minimal enrollment declines this year. As there is fluidity in early semester enrollment day to day, enrollment is presently up 3.1% year over year as of this writing, compared to the original 1.9% decrease in the report.”

Fall 2021 enrollment counts will be finalized later this month, and will reflect a 1% and 2% difference in the preliminary figures. SUNY will release a report in November when detailed numbers and national benchmark data become available.

Administrators at several SUNY campuses have said the lack of in-person visits and communication with teachers, guidance counselors and prospective students during the COVID pandemic have deeply hampered recruitment efforts.

Other students also struggle with reliable internet connectivity, which impacted their success to learn remotely, and affected the eagerness of new students to apply to as the pandemic continues.

SUNY, which boasts a 97% student vaccination rate, requires students accessing SUNY facilities in-person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to be on campus and returned to mainly in-person classes this fall.

While the requirement doesn’t apply to faculty and staff, SUNY says they are “strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.”

Genesee Community College officials planned for a flat enrollment change, and does not anticipate cuts to services or staffing.

“GCC has a tradition of conservative budgeting,” Johnston said. “This financial conservatism continues during the pandemic. We were proactive in building a budget that considered potential enrollment variance. Thus, cuts to services and staffing are not anticipated.

“Given the uncertainty of these times, GCC developed numerous contingencies to prepare for fall enrollment, forecasting for flat enrollment while being prepared to absorb any small decrease,” he added. “Returning to primary face-to-face modality of instruction, in addition to continuing to offer hybrid and online coursework, allowed more flexibility for students than the prior year. Because of the perseverance of our students to enroll or persist in their academics and the efforts of our staff to support them along the way, we were pleased with where fall enrollment landed.”

The college president makes decisions about reducing staff or existing services after consultation with the cabinet and leadership from employee bargaining units during regular meetings.

GCC is working to increase flexibility to meet student needs in the community, Johnston said. The campus has offered courses outside the traditional 16-week semester for several years, and has courses that last seven or 12 weeks and sessions in the summer and winter that include in-person, hybrid and online programs.

“GCC continues to stay abreast of meeting the needs of our regional educational and workforce development needs,” Johnston said. “We add or augment programs and certifications accordingly, including the recent additions of Solar Electric Technician concentration in our Individualized Studies A.A.S degree program, Solar Electric Technician certificate program, as well as micro-credentials in Human Resource Management and New York State Coaching Certification. We have also redoubled our efforts with an increased focus on retention of current students.”

A PUSH FOR STATE AID

It remains unclear how the enrollment crises will impact future state investments into SUNY.

The chancellor remained tirelessly positive about legislative leaders continuing to wholly fund, and not slash, SUNY’s overall budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins April 1.

“If you invest in us, we pay big dividends — we will turn it around and give more opportunities to students,” Malatras said.

The SUNY and City University of New York systems endured about $56 million in cuts since 2017. In February, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed cutting funding SUNY community colleges by $35 million in 2021-22 and another $11 million in 2022-23, citing ongoing enrollment decline, but lawmakers made the higher education systems whole in the final 2021-22 budget.

About 2.2 million New Yorkers ages 25 to 44 years old do not have any college education.

Roughly 50,000 New Yorkers are enrolled in online higher education programs outside the state.

Malatras stressed state lawmakers need to invest more heavily in SUNY and CUNY because of the enrollment decline to offer more opportunities to students and reverse the trend.

“We need more investment, not less in a time when you have hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs because of a skills gap,” he added.

Funding to expand SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program, which provides extra academic and personal support to students who did not think college was an option, could help ease declining enrollment, Malatras said.

SUNY currently has 14,000 applicants for 8,000 spaces. The successful program has a higher retention and graduation rate than SUNY’s overall student body.

Malatras posed examples to SUNY’s Board of Trustees during several discussions about enrollment last week about other education models where a person can start their degree at any point during the year.

SUNY has eliminated application fees for low-income students, and its new website at suny.edu/otc that helps potential students search opportunities within any of the system’s 64 campuses at the same time.

The 10-year enrollment trend at SUNY’s community colleges has also reached new lows, following a consecutive reduction over the last decade.

SUNY has 10,671 or 6.1% fewer students enrolled in its community colleges over one year, or since fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 data — and is down 84,408 students or 34.1% over 10 years since fall 2011.

“We have worked hard at the system and campus levels to engage prospective students,” SUNY Provost-in-Charge Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik said during last week’s Academic Affairs meeting with the Board of Trustees.

Malatras also noted the lower birth rate contributing to fewer high school and college students — especially in the Northeast. The North Country — comprised of small, rural schools and communities — has retained decreasing numbers of young families and young adults of child-bearing age over the past decades.

A new approach to the federal financial aid system must also be posed to legislators, Malatras told trustees last week. The current model discourages part-time attendance or students who will not graduate on the traditional two- or four-year schedule.

Enrollment within SUNY’s technology sector has remained about level.

In the spring, the fate of in-person classes remained largely unknown when most students were applying for the fall 2021 semester, potentially driving numbers lower.

“In crisis, there’s opportunity,” Malatras said. “If we really get the word out and really become nimble and agile and meet the needs of the modern students, the opportunities that we can provide are boundless and it means all of it will be OK.”

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