SUNY chief visits North Country Community College
SARANAC LAKE — The head of the state’s college system visited North Country Community College on Friday to speak with administration, professors and students about low enrollment numbers, the upcoming state budget and the future of the State University of New York system.
John King was appointed as chancellor of SUNY in December, and has been touring each of the state’s 64 public universities in recent weeks, meeting with college leaders as he gets familiar with the campuses. On Friday, he also toured SUNY Plattsburgh.
The NCCC visit started with a round-table discussion with county representatives, professors and college President Joe Keegan. College representatives said they came away encouraged after talking to the new chancellor and that they believe he shares their goals.
As he tours campuses around the state, King said he sees common themes of colleges being in “recovery” mode from the coronavirus pandemic, mental health challenges being exacerbated and the need for improving aging facilities rising.
Where he saw a difference in NCCC, was that right away, he got the sense the college has an unusually “tight community” and connection to the region.
King said the state’s funding of its public universities has historically been too low.
“The reality in the country and in New York is that over the last few decades there hasn’t always been the level of investment that there should be in public higher ed,” King said.
The chancellor’s comments, and his tour around the state, come as lawmakers in Albany hammer out details of the state’s 2024 budget ahead of the April 1 deadline. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $227 billion executive budget proposal includes $13.8 billion for the SUNY system.
But King said he is hopeful about the upcoming budget in both the operational and capital sides. Budget proposals from the state Senate and Assembly build on the initial funding in Hochul’s executive budget proposal.
Keegan had been advocating for a 4% increase in operational aid for community colleges — this aid has been “flat” in recent years — as well as a funding floor to be added to the budget. A funding floor would let the college have a steadier revenue stream in a time when enrollment is down, he said, and has been included in recent past budgets.
Both of these asks were included in the Assembly and Senate budget proposals, Keegan said, and he is hoping this means they’ll be advanced into the final budget.
This year, the state funded 29% of NCCC’s budget. Students pay the largest portion, 40%, with Essex and Franklin counties making up 23% and the NCCC Foundation or other income making up the rest of the 8%.
The Enterprise recently ran a letter to the editor from Shir Filler, an NCCC English professor, who compared the hundreds of millions of dollars the state puts into refurbishing Olympic venues to NCCC’s approximately $15 million annual budget. She questioned if the state’s priorities are where they should be.
King tacitly agreed. He said “education is not an expense; it’s an investment,” but that politicians don’t always see that because it has a delayed return on investment. Training the next generation of workers and leaders often takes a back seat while competing with other budget priorities.
“The time horizon is a little bit longer,” he said.
He said he has recently seen a shift in legislators’ attitudes toward funding higher education.
Hochul’s budget includes a tuition hike for SUNY colleges of up to 3%. The Senate and Assembly are trying to block this raise in costs to students. Their budgets do not include the raise, but it is unclear if the final budget will.
For the past three years, NCCC has frozen its tuition fees, so students are still paying 2019 rates. That freeze was recently approved for another year. King said a tuition increase in the state budget would not override this freeze — each college assesses its own situation and sets its own tuition. But it would give “flexibility” or “authority” to make increases.
King said this would be a “modest tuition increase” to create a sustainable funding source for state colleges. SUNY tuition is still significantly lower than other states and private colleges, even with the proposed tuition raise, he said.
King said, between the state’s Excelsior Scholarship and Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell grants, 53% of students at SUNY four-year institutions don’t pay tuition, so a tuition increase would not impact the lowest income students.
Paul Smith’s College, a nearby private four-year university, recently froze its tuition rates, in hopes of increasing enrollment.
Enrollment has been declining at NCCC and was low again this year.
NCCC had 638 core students in the fall semester, down slightly from 676 the previous year. Enrollment is down for colleges nationwide. A study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed a 7.8% drop in enrollment at public two-year colleges in the U.S. for the 2022 spring semester, compared to the 2021 spring semester.
King said the state seeks to increase enrollment by creating new programs matched to emerging areas of the economy — semiconductors, renewable energy, the cannabis industry or health care.
He said SUNY’s goal is to get the 2 million New Yorkers who have college credits, but not a degree, to finish.
Second Chance Pell Program
Keegan’s face lit up when he learned King was the U.S. Secretary of Education when the Second Chance Pell Program launched.
“Thank you,” he told King, with a little bow.
Keegan said he loves the program, which allows nonviolent inmates with less than five years left on their sentences to earn an associate’s degree with access to federal Pell grants. NCCC was one of the first colleges in the nation — and the only SUNY community college — to offer this program when it began. There are currently 128 inmates enrolled in NCCC classes across both state and federal prisons: Adirondack Correctional and the Federal Correctional Institution in Ray Brook, and Bare Hill Correctional and Franklin Correctional in Malone.
King said there were many higher education programs in prisons before the 1994 Crime Bill banned access to Pell grants for inmates.
New York state followed suit by blocking Tuition Assistance Program grants for inmates in 1995. That meant NCCC had to end classes for 160 inmates, the Enterprise reported at the time. The TAP elimination alone knocked a $1 million hole in the college’s budget, and that, combined with other state funding losses, led to major staff reduction over the next year.
“This was terrible public policy because the vast majority of folks who are incarcerated are coming home,” Keegan said. “The evidence is, if folks have access to education while incarcerated, they are less likely to return to prison and more likely to be successful when they come home.”
The Second Chance Pell Program began during the Obama administration with “experimental sites” at 65 colleges around the country. NCCC was the only two-year SUNY college to offer it at the time. The program grew during the Trump administration, “a rare area of bipartisan agreement,” King said. He said there have been efforts to expand the law to allow all colleges to offer Second Chance Pell grants.
Also, last year, King said New York state allowed incarcerated people to access TAP grants again.
King said there is national recognition that higher education in prison can be transformative, benefiting inmates, their families and the public. Not only do they get degrees to get jobs when they are released; he said earning a degree changes how they see themselves and can earn the respect of their families again.
Community college perception
Associate Professor of Health Sciences Sarah Shoemaker didn’t plan to speak to King about anything, but public perception of community colleges was on her mind.
Shoemaker said community colleges have negative connotations but are an essential training ground. She asked for SUNY to promote them more to reduce that stigma.
King said he is an ally in this area and wants to recognize community colleges more. This spring, he said SUNY is partnering with high schools to send letters to all high school seniors with their names on them, advertising their local community colleges.
In visiting the state’s 30 community colleges, he said he hoped to send a message to their local residents that these institutions provide value with an economic return.
He said Keegan told him that, in 2019, around 70% of Adirondack Medical Center’s radiation technicians were alumni of NCCC. Community colleges are important for regional economic and health needs, he said.
Meredith Chapman, NCCC’s associate director of admissions, said she was concerned by news that the state Education Department and Board of Regents are considering lowering minimum scores for math and English exams.
With lower proficiency levels, Chapman said community colleges would need to bridge that gap in education and would need more support from the state.
King said he agrees and will bring these concerns to the state Education Department, along with the Board of Regents, which make the final decision.
Capital improvements, simulation labs
NCCC has old buildings dating back to the 1960s and 1970s when NCCC was founded, and while upgrades to the chemistry and microbiology labs are scheduled to start after commencement on May 24, many more upgrades are needed, college officials said.
King said there is a SUNY-wide $7.7 billion backlog of critical capital maintenance.
The college is also installing new nursing lab simulation equipment to let students do next-to-real-world training, simulating all sorts of clinical situations on mannequins. These labs are expected to open next fall.
King said there is currently a bill proposed in the state legislature that would allow the hours spent in the simulation lab to count as clinical hours. That is currently not allowed. The bill would allow for 30% of clinical hours to be in simulation labs.
NCCC Communications Director Chris Knight said these are “super-important” here because of limitations on where and when they can do clinical placements in such a rural area, and students need a certain number of clinical hours to graduate.
King said to call these “mannequins” is reductive. They can do so much — talk, bleed, give birth, have heart rates and blood pressure. They are controlled by supervisors in nearby rooms.
He said this allows students to get feedback in a low-risk environment.