Gilman Center SUNY Orange Middletown Campus (Wikipedia Creative Commons)
BY ERIKA NORTON
MIDDLETOWN — Over the last few years, enrollment at SUNY Orange has been steadily declining, while tuition has been increasing, a complex issue the community college is trying to combat in a number of ways, according to SUNY Orange President Dr. Kristine Young.
In fall 2012, enrollment was 5,966, and in fall 2016, enrollment was 5,545, a 421 difference over four years.
As for why enrollment is going down, Young says there are many different reasons.
“There are many factors that contribute to declining enrollment: the effect of the economy on families — as the economy improves, community college enrollments generally decline — changes in healthcare regulations, smaller numbers of student graduates resulting in a smaller pool of traditional students, the ability to acquire financial aid, a growing list of alternative educational options, and others,” Young said. “Our students come from a diverse set of social, economic and cultural backgrounds, so it is difficult to pin enrollment swings, up or down, on any one particular reason.”
She said they are also seeing a shift in more students enrolling part-time as opposed to being full-time students. In a blog post on the school’s website Monday, Young said that at SUNY Orange, about 33 percent of students work at least 20 hours a week and most of the rest work at least some as they pursue their studies.
While overall student population is decreasing, according to Young, more students are electing to take six credits rather than nine, or three rather than six, equating to part-time status.
Effect on schoolNevertheless, the decrease in enrollment has had an effect on the school. The college’s funding from New York State is enrollment driven, Young said, so when enrollment is down, the school’s budget is impacted doubly because lower enrollment means less tuition income for the college, as well as less money from the state.
The school is funded by three primary sources: the state, Orange County and student tuition. Under a state mandate, one third of the college’s revenue is to come from each of those entities, however according to Young, New York State’s portion, as approved by the state Legislature, has not reached the one-third threshold.
With less money from the state and enrollment declining, the school has raised tuition in order to balance their budget, Young said, with tuition increasing $536 since 2012 for full-time students.
The school has also undertaken a number of cost-cutting measures in recent years, according to Young, including consolidating services where possible, limiting purchases on some supplies and other items, reducing travel to conferences and workshops by employees, utilizing adjunct professors rather than full-time professors when appropriate, and providing in-house professional development opportunities.
Fortunately, the school has not had to cut academic programs or salary.
“As employees have retired or moved on to other opportunities, we have elected to not fill some positions or have reshaped some positions to fill different needs,” Young said. “We keep almost all positions vacant for a period of at least 10 weeks as another way to cut costs and we have tried to be thrifty in as many areas as possible.”
Efforts to increase enrollmentTo try to increase enrollment, SUNY Orange added a New Media degree program two years ago, and a Public Health degree program this past fall. The school also revamped their orientation process to give incoming students a better idea of what to expect as they transition to college, as well as expanded their veterans services to accommodate or attract veterans who are transitioning back to the civilian sector.
Because of these and other enrollment initiatives, Young said the decline in enrollment has slowed. After a substantial push to increase enrollment last summer, Young said the school saw a five percent increase in summer enrollment. They’ve also expanded their marketing outreach with television, radio and print advertising, and ramped up several online marketing initiatives this past Fall semester, as well as the new Spring semester starting Jan. 17.
“Enrollment in the fall was only down 1.2 percent, which was lower than our peers in the region,” Young said. “We attribute that to our focused enrollment initiatives. Had we not made that concerted push, we truly believe we would have seen a greater decline.”
The school has also secured a number of grants, including a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 to establish a TRIO program, with the goal of increasing the persistence, retention, graduation and transfer rates of low-income first generation students and students with disabilities. In 2016, SUNY Orange received a $114,750 grant from the State University of New York’s Investment and Performance Fund to create an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) that will provide access, academic support and financial aid counseling to low-income and academically underprepared students.
Gov. Cuomo's proposalSomething else Young is keeping an eye on is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal, which would allow tuition to be free at all public universities in New York State for families and individuals making less than $125,000 per year. Both SUNY Chairman H. Carl McCall and Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher released a statement in support of the proposal.
Young said that while SUNY Orange does not have access to income data of prospective students to know how many students or families in the area would qualify for free tuition, she said she would expect that more students would be looking at SUNY Orange as an educational opportunity.
“More than ever, our state and nation need an enlightened citizenry,” Young said in a statement after Cuomo’s announcement of the plan. “While we usually, and not incorrectly, link a strong education to well-paying jobs, we should not overlook the importance of a broad, general education and honed critical thinking skills, both of which are necessary to live fulfilling lives and to participate fully in our democracy.
“While many details remain to be finalized, I am most pleased that today’s announcement has further broadened the discussion on how we can expand access and open doors to quality higher education for all. I look forward to working with my SUNY colleagues, our statewide elected officials and many others to fulfill the promise of a brighter future for countless New Yorkers.”