It's the time of year when graduating high schoolers anxiously check mailboxes on their way up the driveway after a day of classes and extracurricular activities, hoping for acceptance letters from colleges. While the process for the students can be arduous - bogged down with filling out applications for housing and funding - the college side of things is starting to get equally nerve-racking.
On average, college tuition increases 8 percent each year - nearly twice the rate of inflation, according to www.finaid.org. And with an economic climate that guarantees nothing after graduation, many students are starting to reassess the importance of a four-year degree when it likely means tens of thousands of dollars of debt with little job security. As a result, this is forcing colleges to get more creative in how they convince students their college is the best fit for them.
Enrollment numbers are reflecting this at both North Country Community College and Paul Smith's College.
Above, Paul Smiths students are able to find a quiet study space in the Joan Weill Library with cushy armchairs directed toward enormous windows that look out to Lower St. Regis Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Emily Hunkler)
NCCC numbers on the rise, Paul Smith's stagnant
Last month, North Country Community College reported a 12 percent increase in enrollment for the 2008-09 academic year (1,968 students) - the tenth straight year of growth and a 107 percent increase from enrollment in 1999.
On the contrary, PSC's enrollment has remained flat while recruiters and admissions faculty try to drum up interest in the programs offered at the school - programs they have to convince prospective students are well worth the more than $30,000-a-year ticket price.
"Community colleges are becoming the preferred choice in the SUNY system," said Ed Trathen, vice president for enrollment and student services at NCCC. "Across the state, there are more students choosing community college over the state institutions of SUNY."
And with a full year costing $3,490 compared to tens of thousands, it's not difficult to see the appeal.
While many of NCCC's students are non-traditional - either older or part-time - Trathen said the number of graduating high schoolers choosing the school is on the rise.
"Our biggest growth is coming from the more traditional-aged students, ones that would have gone to (SUNY) Plattsburgh or Potsdam a few years ago," Trathen said.
But PSC Vice President for Enrollment Management Kathleen Fitzgerald said the economic climate only means her staff needs to start getting more creative.
College recruitment in the Facebook age
While PSC's campus may be isolated, tucked back along the shores of Lower St. Regis Lake, catering to the adventurous and resourceful, on the internet the college is striving to become anything but tucked away.
"We have a Flickr page now," Fitzgerald said, referring to the image sharing Web site. "I'm not exactly sure how we are going to use that yet, but it's out there."
In addition to Flickr, PSC has set up profiles on social networking sites like Facebook, and also has a YouTube account where students and staff can post videos from the college.
Whether its culinary arts students working in the kitchen or students socializing on campus - prospective or interested students can get a virtual feel of the campus before even requesting a brochure or taking the tour.
"I've had to adjust our marketing to the medium that works best," Fitzgerald said. "And a lot of that is through these social networking sites."
Bringing the college
to the student
But PSC has taken notice of the rise in community college enrollments and students' struggle to afford tuition.
Announced this week, PSC will sign a memorandum of understanding with Adirondack Community College in Queensbury to offer a four-year Bachelor of Science in hotel, resort and tourism management.
"It's not the entire experience of living here and being a part of this living laboratory, but it's what we can offer to students who aren't able to be a part of that," Fitzgerald said.
She said the college has also reallocated money to scholarships and financial aid so qualified students have options when it comes to footing the bill.
As long as a student carries a C average, scored a 900 on the SAT and 16 on the ACT, they qualify for $6,000 a year in bachelor program scholarships. That number increases up to $10,000 for students with an A average.
Price versus prestige
"It's worth the money even if this is just going to be debt over my head later in life," said Josh Ghanime, 18, a forest recreation and resource management student from Saratoga Springs.
But Ghanime is cognizant of the stress and hardships excessive debt can bring. He is on track to graduate in three years and plans to take community college courses in the summer to get some of his general study requirements taken care of.
"That will save me about $30,000 right there," he said. "Right now, I am just focused more on getting my education so I can find the job that I want once I graduate."
Most students at PSC simply accept debt as another part of the college experience, right along with all-night study sessions, first tastes of independence and learning how to balance freedom with responsibility.
"It's expected that to get that piece of paper, that degree, you just know you're going to be paying for it," said Ally Mayville, 22, a hospitality and resort management student from Fort Covington. "I'm about $34,000 deep right now."
But NCCC student Matt Dana, 19, of Tupper Lake, isn't paying a dime for his education as part of the Essex and Franklin Scholars program that offers two years of free tuition to students in Essex and Franklin counties who graduate in the top 20 percent of their class.
"I was toying with the idea of going to a four-year school, but when I found out I was eligible for the scholarship, it just made sense," Dana said. He is pursuing an associate's degree in criminal justice.
"It's nice this way because it lets me live at home and work and I still get to see my family," Dana said of the perks of attending NCCC.
Dana said that while he had thought about just going straight from school to a job in a local police department, he has now taken a liking to the college classroom, although he is well aware of the debt that can go along with it.
"I know for a lot of my friends, that $30,000 tuition cost is the only thing keeping them up at night," he said, but added that he would like to pursue a bachelor's degree at either SUNY Plattsburgh or Potsdam before testing the job market.
Trathen said NCCC will continue to meet the needs of both the community and its students.
"Community colleges are designed to address the immediate economic issues," Trathen said. "If there is a sudden demand for a particular vocational training, we are designed to quickly design programming for the enhancement of those jobs."
And in this vein, NCCC's Ticonderoga campus will offer a registered nursing program this fall, a flourishing program in Saranac Lake and one that can grant some reprieve in the nursing shortage in the area.
While NCCC faculty can rest easy for the time being and watch as students begin to see the institution as a financially responsible starting point of higher education, PSC officials aren't sweating the enrollment climate too much yet.
"I am noticing a trend upward in the academic quality of the students we are enrolling," Fitzgerald said. "We're trying to work really hard with every family to make the possibility of a Paul Smith's education a reality. One family at a time. And, right now, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic."
Contact Emily Hunkler at
891-2600 ext. 24 or