ALBANY — The 64-campus State University of New York, the nation’s largest comprehensive public university system, has experienced an enrollment drop of nearly 20% over the past decade, a troubling trend that gained even more steam over the last year, new data shows.
Campus-by-campus data was not readily available from SUNY administrators in Albany. But a slide presentation displayed at a SUNY trustees meeting Tuesday indicated the current enrollment, based on preliminary data, stands at 375,620 students.
That reflects a drop of 18,600 students, or 4.7%, from one year ago, when the enrollment was put at 394,220. Students returned to physical classrooms this spring after many courses shifted to distance learning at the beginning of this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September 2011, SUNY reported a total enrollment of 468,006 students. The university system’s enrollment has thus shrunk by 92,386 students in that span, a decline of more than 19.7%.
Trustees and administrators are now scrambling to craft more effective marketing and recruitment efforts.
The efforts are overseen by Chancellor James Malatras, who took over the system one year ago after he was advanced for the position by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Malatras, 44, has been a longtime political associate of Cuomo. He had previously headed Empire State College, which has reported an enrollment of about 9,100.
Trustees recommended Tuesday that SUNY administrators wage a full-court press to lure more students to the campuses by highlighting the affordability of a SUNY education and diverse offerings at a wide range of schools.
Trustee Stanley Litow suggested outreach efforts be focused not only at guidance counselors but at high school principals and community-based organizations as well.
“It’s not only about marketing,” Litow said. “It’s partnering with them. Those partnerships have to be deep. It’s developing those relationships over time, and using our students and using our contacts with them to get these messages across.”
Officials at SUNY Plattsburgh told CNHI that a preliminary headcount of students this month indicates the enrollment stands at about 4,800, down 300, or 5.8%, from last year. But new student enrollment and readmissions reflect an increase of 2.8% this year over the previous count.
“We are pleased with the increase among incoming first-year and transfer students,” SUNY Plattsburgh spokeswoman Heather Haskins said in response to a query from CNHI. “Overall, the past two academic years have been affected by COVID, remote learning and the like. The return to on-campus learning, high vaccination rates and low case numbers have made for a successful fall semester and the opportunity to build quality on-campus experiences for retention and growing the next class.”
SUNY Oneonta is also dealing with an enrollment drop. The current overall enrollment is 5,942 students, down from 6,751 one year ago, according to Kim MacLeod, a spokeswoman for the Oneonta campus. That reflects a decrease of nearly 12%.
The undergraduate enrollment now at Oneonta is 5,407, down from 6,222 a year ago, according to the data shared by MacLeod.
At the trustee meeting in Albany, Kyle Adams, now Malatras’ assistant vice chancellor for marketing and creative strategy, said: “Obviously, we are in a long-term enrollment decline that we are trying to stabilize and turn around.”
More details of the enrollment trend are expected to be discussed when trustees reconvene Wednesday.
Adams discussed marketing campaigns that have been initiated that he said will help “brand” SUNY and “provide better customer service” to prospective applicants.
“We are being outspent by the for-profit institutions, particularly, by tens of millions of dollars,” Adams said. “They are spending over $100 million at places like Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Phoenix. What they are not doing is brand building. What they are doing is selling a transaction. You get your degree; you get out. People are not jazzed about doing that. People are not super-psyched about being at Phoenix.”
Adams also noted that SUNY is spending $1.2 million on a social media campaign to market the university.
The new enrollment data emerges seven months after Malatras announced a “Big Dreams, Small Step” outreach effort aimed at high school students. That campaign is tied to the “SUNY For All” program, which emphasizes that individuals from impoverished backgrounds limit their economic potential without a college degree.
Malatras noted Tuesday that about 50% of SUNY graduates have no outstanding student debt when they complete their education.
In addition to providing state-subsidized education, SUNY campuses in upstate communities such as Oneonta, Plattsburgh, Delhi and Cobleskill are important economic engines. They are the source of thousands of jobs in addition to providing spillover benefits for local shops and property owners renting apartments to students and faculty members.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at [email protected]