Community colleges grapple with crash in enrollment numbers
The president of Clinton Community College, one of the state’s smallest two-year schools, is eagerly awaiting approval of a federal program that will allow inmates at nearby Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora to take courses remotely.
Ray DiPasquale is excited for the possibility of bringing workforce training and a college education to a unique audience in the North Country.
But he also welcomes the extra bodies it would add to Clinton Community’s student head count – which has plummeted 45% over the last decade.
“We’re embracing it and not sitting back and saying, ‘It’s our fate,'” said DiPasquale, who came to the college in 2017 after serving as president of the Community College of Rhode Island. “You have to do something about it.”
Enrollments at most community colleges nationally are declining. Among the reasons: With unemployment low, fewer people are looking for job training. Also, a decline in the birth rate means there are fewer high school graduates.
New York state’s 31 community colleges lost an average 23% of enrolled students between 2010 to 2019 compared with a national average of about 14% between 2010 and 2017, according to data from the State University of New York and the American Association of Community Colleges.
Four of those New York schools, in addition to Clinton Community College, lost more than a third of their students — Tompkins-Cortland, Niagara County, Herkimer County and Monroe Community College outside of Rochester — according to an analysis of SUNY data done by the Times Union.
Hudson Valley and Schenectady County community colleges have seen about the same decline as New York state overall, both losing about 25% of their students since 2010.
Community colleges were started as a way for those with little economic means, or elite academic standing, to be able to get a liberal arts education or employment training that was also conveniently close to home. But so much has changed — from the ability to take classes online, to four-year colleges now making themselves more affordable.
A few New York community colleges have largely maintained their boom enrollments, like Ulster and Suffolk community colleges. But there are no common threads that explain why other schools are being hit hard. While small, rural schools are suffering, so too are some of the state’s largest community colleges in populated areas — like Monroe and Nassau Community College on Long Island, which have lost 39 and 30% of their students respectively.
But for some institutions in New York, general population decline also comes into play. For example, about half of Herkimer County Community College’s students come from outside that county — and its neighboring county, Hamilton, had the greatest population loss in New York state between 2010 and 2018 at 8%.
Herkimer President Cathleen McColgin said the college’s budget, as well as its staff, have been reduced 37% — matching its enrollment decline. Faculty and other employees cuts have been made through early retirement incentives and not filling positions. She said she “rejoiced” when enrollment remained flat this school year at around 2,400 students.
Stabilization is goal
“We realize as an institution it’s unrealistic to think we’ll ever get back to our high enrollment,” McColgin said. “Our goal is more of a stabilization rather than thinking we’ll get back to over 3,000.”
New York state responded last year by guaranteeing that community colleges could lose no less than 98% of their prior year’s state funding no matter how much their enrollment declined. Community colleges are funded by the state to the tune of $454 million — in addition to the money provided through student tuition and county governments. Some counties have also increased their contributions to help their local institutions survive during the downturn.
But SUNY’s senior vice chancellor for community colleges, Johanna Duncan-Poitier, recently provided an upbeat forecast to a trustee at a committee meeting who asked if SUNY has a marketing strategy to assist colleges struggling with enrollment. Duncan-Poitier said during the September meeting that some schools just have “smaller populations — but not necessarily declining,” and said some schools’ enrollments are “actually experiencing an increase in students,” and referenced Sullivan and North Country community colleges.
In a spreadsheet provided to the Times Union, SUNY highlighted in yellow that Sullivan’s enrollment increased 6% from 2018 to 2019. But it, along with Corning and Dutchess, were the only schools that had enrollment gains over one year. North Country continued to lose students, and overall community college enrollment in New York state continued to trend downward — from a high of 249,343 in 2010 to 192,959 in fall 2019.
“When I read the initial numbers, they are alarming and they are part of a national trend,” SUNY Board of Trustees Chairwoman Merryl Tisch told the Times Union. “But I’m telling you, I’m starting to see shoots of green,” she said, noting improvements the state is seeing in two and three-year graduation rates from community college, as well as a slight increase in the number of people who are continuing onto to a four-year SUNY school.
However, Tisch said she has directed SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson to provide a detailed look at the enrollment downturn, which she expects to be presented to the SUNY board in the next two to three months.
“I, like everyone else, am deeply concerned,” Tisch said. “I have expressed my concern publicly at these meetings and I think we’re starting to unpack the data in a thoughtful way.”
State Sen. James Seward, a Republican from Milford, Otsego County, who is on the Senate’s higher education committee, said the Ithaca area’s low unemployment rate (the lowest upstate at 3%) has likely contributed to the 45% decline in enrollment at Tompkins-Cortland Community College.
But he said the state needs to look at its funding formula for community colleges, which has remained largely unchanged since it was established some 50 years ago. The state reimburses the colleges solely based the number of full-time equivalent students.
Seward said the problem also likely requires the creation of a state commission to investigate and provide solutions for the enrollment crisis.
Key training role
“The community colleges play such a key role in training our workforce. They respond to local employer needs. We need to make sure our community colleges not only survive but thrive,” Seward said. “They are critically important to our economy.”
Meanwhile, each college is trying to develop stronger relationships with local businesses, high schools – even two-year schools in other countries — in order to attract more students.
Hudson Valley Community College has been meeting with community religious leaders and is partnering with Questar III BOCES to put two high school programs on campus. The college is also developing programs in Costa Rica, the Philippines and Trinidad (HVCC President Roger Ramsammy’s native country) that will involve staff from technical schools there training to be HVCC adjunct professors. The hope is that one day, students taught by those adjuncts would want to come to Rensselaer County to continue their educations.
“With demographics as they are, we have to find new markets if we want to stabilize our enrollment and grow it,” said Ramsammy, a professor of microbiology who came to the college in summer 2018 after running Miami Dade College West Campus in Florida.
“It’s about reaching the students nobody has tried to reach,” he said.