SUNY Potsdam isn’t alone

Many state-run colleges facing enrollment declines, budget gaps

The State University of New York System Administration, a public office building, is located at SUNY Plaza, 353 Broadway, Albany. (Johnson Newspapers photo — Alex Gault)

SUNY Potsdam on Tuesday announced it would make dramatic cuts to programming and staffing to cut costs in the face of a $9 million budget hole, but the college’s financial woes and precipitous drop in student enrollment aren’t a unique trend.

Officials announced a plan for Potsdam that would cut 14 degree programs, slate two campus buildings for closure and lay off an undisclosed number of staff. The campus has seen costs outpace revenues for years, and has seen its student body nearly cut in half, down to just 2,515 students this semester from its peak of 4,098 students in fall 2012.

But the SUNY system, and even private colleges across upstate New York have seen significant declines in enrollment, with fewer students each year for the last decade at most campuses.

Combined with growing costs and a long term lack of state investment, all but six SUNY campuses across the system have some sort of deficit in their budgets.

According to SUNY enrollment data, the entire SUNY system lost about 100,000 students between fall 2012 and fall 2022.

Data on this fall semester is not yet available, as drop-out periods are still open at some campuses. The system had 461,816 students, both full and part time, in fall 2012, and 363,612 in fall of 2022.

In 2012, community colleges enrolled a few thousand more students than four-year SUNY campuses, but in 2015 the four-year campuses overtook community colleges as the more highly-enrolled institutions.

Community colleges have seen a steady decline in enrollment since 2012, losing student numbers year over year relatively steadily before evening out between 2021 and 2022. Four-year SUNY campuses were gaining students year-over-year until 2020, when they began a decline.

A quarter of all SUNY students are enrolled at one of four major university centers, located in Buffalo, Binghamton, Albany and Stony Brook on Long Island, and those four centers have remained relatively stable or added students relatively steadily between 2012 and 2022. Only eight campuses across SUNY had more students in 2022 than they did in 2012; the state colleges at Cornell, three of the SUNY university centers in Buffalo, Binghamton and Stony Brook, SUNY Polytechnic, Downstate Medical University, SUNY Farmingdale and Sullivan County Community College. SUNY Oneonta was gaining students until reaching its peak in 2020, but lost all its gains to drop back below 2012 enrollment numbers in fall 2022.

Some campuses have lost students at a similar rate or worse than SUNY Potsdam as well. Buffalo State, not to be confused with the SUNY University at Buffalo, had 11,781 students in fall 2012 and 6,445 students in 2022, a 58% drop. SUNY Canton, just 20 minutes away by car from SUNY Potsdam, had 3,780 students in 2012 and 2,835 in 2022, a drop of 28%.

Almost every community college in upstate New York has seen between a 40% and 60% drop in student population from 2012 to 2022.

SUNY officials did not answer questions on the system’s financial health or the decrease in student headcounts.

A drop in students means a drop in revenue, but does not lead to any automatic decrease in costs.

SUNY campuses are supported by a mix of state funding, federal funding and student tuitions, almost all of it directed on a by-student basis. Blanket state aid to SUNY campuses has not kept pace with historical commitments either. In 2004, total state aid to the SUNY system was just under $1.9 billion, while today the state aid budget for SUNY was $1.34 billion. When factoring in inflation, SUNY received almost two times as much state support in 2004 compared to funding plans for fiscal year 2023.

Last year, in Sept. 2022, the United University Professions union reported that a number of SUNY campuses were facing serious budget shortfalls. Campuses had reported their budget shortfall expectations to the union, which the union shared in a warning that the SUNY system could face a reckoning without help.

The shortfalls range from $16 million at SUNY Fredonia to $1.9 million at SUNY Oneonta. Then, SUNY Potsdam was projected to face a budget gap of $5.5 million, lower than the $9 million officials cited on Tuesday. SUNY Canton told UUP they were facing a $5 million budget gap, SUNY Oswego said they were facing a $5 million gap and SUNY Plattsburgh listed a gap of $7.8 million. Across the system, 19 campuses reported a combined $160 million in operating deficits.

In responds to these facts, SUNY officials directed 66.6 million of the $160 million funding boost given to the system this year to the campuses UUP officials were most worried about. SUNY Potsdam was given an increase in SUNY operating aid of $2.5 million, a 23% increase over 2022-23 levels. SUNY Canton was given $1.8 million more, an increase of 33.8%, SUNY Oswego was given $3.4 million more, an increase of 25%, and SUNY Plattsburgh was given $3.3 million more, an increase of 31%.

But the largest increase in SUNY aid directly to campuses was reserved for SUNY Albany, which saw the lowest student headcount drop of any of the campuses experiencing a drop. That campus, with a 10-year drop in first-year-enrollments of 3.7% in 2023, got $13.7 million more in SUNY funding this year, an increase of 28%.

On Wednesday, UUP President Dr. Frederick Kowal, a professor of political science at SUNY Cobleskill, said he had hoped the SUNY Board of Trustees would use that money, granted to SUNY thanks in part to UUP’s advocacy, to help bridge funding gaps at SUNY campuses across the system.

The state budget passed this year included $1.38 billion for SUNY operating aid, and $3 billion for capital funding, for an overall increase of $160 million over last year. A proposal to increase SUNY and City University of New York tuition rates over the next five years was left out, although out-of-state students will see a tuition hike.

Union officials said at the time that they were happy to see the extra money, but were concerned it was mostly destined to support the university centers.

Kowal said SUNY has been historically underfunded for decades, with cuts made to state aid to campuses in the 2008 recession and no meaningful investments made during the administration of former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

With that reality, he said SUNY campuses should be seeing much more state support in order to remain competitive, and he called the cuts at SUNY Potsdam part of a “manufactured crisis.”

When asked about the decline in student populations, Kowal said that enrollment has always ebbed and flowed, but the drop in enrollment now isn’t due to a lack of potential students, as some have argued.

While the state of New York’s population has declined in recent decades, especially upstate, and the number of youth residents has dropped, Kowal said there are still vast numbers of young adults in New York who do not pursue higher education purely because of cost.

“A lot of potential students are abandoning their dreams of going to college because they can’t afford it,” he said.

And while efforts have been made to keep in-state tuition for SUNY schools low, room, board and fees can end up costing thousands of dollars for prospective students.

“Fees, room and board are often 75% of the cost of going to school,” Kowal said.

The answer to issues like the ones seen at SUNY Potsdam is investment, Kowal said. Work to make the school more attractive for students, and support its programming to ensure the institution remains sound. He said the effect of program cuts, which can drive students away from colleges and sour prospective students view on the institution is devastating, and he had a grave outlook for Potsdam.

“I believe they are on the road to a smaller and smaller Potsdam, to the point where I don’t know if it’s viable enough to survive,” he said.

SUNY officials have said they remain committed to Potsdam, one of the oldest institutions in New York and a founding member of the SUNY system, and said they are continuing to pursue avenues to keep the school operating and financially stable.


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