Even with decreased enrollment, Paul Smith’s College students, faculty enjoy small classes

Soils and hydrology professor Hunter Favreau explains how to take measurements of a stream to a class of 11 Paul Smith’s College students. With enrollment down at the college, many class sizes are shrinking as well.
(Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Soils and hydrology professor Hunter Favreau explains how to take measurements of a stream to a class of 11 Paul Smith’s College students. With enrollment down at the college, many class sizes are shrinking as well. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

PAUL SMITHS — Enrollment numbers are down this semester at Paul Smith’s College, and while the administration works to raise them in the interest of increased funding, many students and professors are happy with a small college community.

With 771 students enrolled at the start of the fall semester, down from 1,000 students enrolled seven years ago, there has been a steady decrease in students attending the forestry and hospitality-focused college. While recent years have still seen numbers in the 800s, 2017 has been the lowest in a long time as the college feels the impact of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state-wide Excelsior Scholarship Program, which provides free tuition for students at state colleges.

“The Excelsior Scholarship, frankly, just accelerated the process we’ve already been fighting,” Chief Marketing Officer Shannon Oborne said.

Paul Smith’s, as a tuition-funded private institution, has seen a nine percent decrease in incoming students since last year. After a large bump in applications this year — due in part to the use of the Common Application — the college unexpectedly saw only 288 of the 400 applicants follow through with their choice to attend Paul Smith’s. According to Oborne, most applicants went as far as visiting the campus before they left the application process.

“The deposits were coming in on schedule and then the [Excelsior] announcement came out — and this is not just Paul Smith’s, this is the word I’m hearing from my colleagues — things kind of stalled all of a sudden,” Vice President for Enrollment Management Peter Burns said.

Paul Smith’s College students study in the college’s library.
(Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Paul Smith’s College students study in the college’s library. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Excelsior’s low points

Burns and Oborne have concerns over the decisions of so many parents and students to use the Excelsior Scholarship and not consider a private college. Since Excelsior is a “last-dollar” scholarship, it will make up the difference between students’ financial aid packages and the tuition bill. For many low-income students, Burns said, their cost of tuition is often already covered in full anyway. The scholarship also has a 30-credit requirement per year, meaning students who have to work to pay for housing, books and transportation also have to take 15 credits worth of classes each semester as well.

“I think one of the things that really bothered me about Excelsior, was the requirement to stay in state or your free tuition would turn into a loan,” Burns said. “Paul Smith’s prides itself on having a network of professionals throughout the United States and more than 52 percent of our graduates work across the United States.”

Trimming and planning

With the college-bound population shrinking due to a reduced youth population and increased competition with a healthy job market, the tuition-based college is tightening its belt to make it through the tuition drought it is experiencing. In 2014, when enrollment at Paul Smith’s totaled 892 students, the college eliminated 23 positions – including 11 layoffs – reducing its 190-person workforce by 12 percent.

“We really did not want to go in that direction … and can’t,” Oborne said. “It’s not as if we have extra people lying around.”

The college is currently eliminating two positions at the college and is deciding to not fill several open ones.

According to Oborne, the college administration is developing programs to provide funding for the college outside of tuition, by utilizing its unique, large and natural campus to host sports camps, weddings and conferences.

One plan she mentioned was to turn the campus into a summer tourism destination, opening the trails, lake and facilities usually inhabited by

“Smitties” to the general public. Vacationers will get the Paul Smith’s College experience without having to turn in any homework, experiencing Adirondack flora and fauna, paddling around Lower St. Regis Lake and living in the dormitories while learning how to bake in the college’s kitchens.

It’s a small campus after all

One of the faculty members who works in those kitchens, Amy DeWitt, appreciates Paul Smith’s low enrollment rate.

“It’s more like a family,” the assistant professor of baking and pastry arts said. “I like that it’s a small school.”

With nine students in her sophomore class this year, DeWitt says this is about as small as she would like her class, but is also glad there are not too many cooks in the kitchen.

“We have small classes and big kitchens,” DeWitt said. “We’re spoiling them because it is not like that in the industry.”

Many Paul Smith’s students and faculty are there for a reason: they like the small college atmosphere.

“I come from a pretty small high school, so I came to Paul Smith’s because it is small,” freshman Cody Liguori said.

However, he was still open to the idea of growth in Paul Smith’s enrollment.

“I think it would actually make it a little more college-atmosphere-like,” Liguori said.

Growing a student body

The college has recently expanded its recruitment area to bring in more students from around the country. After introducing a “lifestyle cities” campaign two years ago to bring students from rural areas similar to Paul Smiths on campus, there are currently three students from Anchorage, Alaska enrolled at the college this semester.

Paul Smith’s was also the only college to recruit at this year’s Boy Scout Jamboree, capitalizing on the 21 students in the freshman class alone who are Boy Scout Eagle Scouts or Girl Scout Gold Award recipients.

“We want to be known as a great place for Eagle Scouts,” Burns said,

The college also relies on alumni, with the 100 members of Paul Smith’s Compass Club helping spread knowledge of the college at college fairs across the country.

According to Oborne, the alumni donations rate has risen recently to exceed 10 percent, a goal they had been trying to reach for several years.

This surge came after a proposed $20 million dollar donation to the college was pulled by the Wall Street billionaire couple Joan and Sanford Weill. The donation was rescinded following the college’s rejection of their proposal to change the college’s name to Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College.

“One of the outcomes was that they [alumni] got the message that their college really needed their help more than they realized,” Oborne said.

Paul Smith’s has a bit of good news regarding student numbers as well: student retention is around 10 percent higher than the national average at 74 percent.

While it needs larger numbers to find financial stability, its students and faculty appreciate the small class sizes as both groups say they benefit from the personal relationships they build with each other.

“This is always going to be a small, private college that prides itself on being able to have good one-to-one relationships with faculty,” Burns said.

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