State University of New York officials plan to increase alternative course schedules for adult students seeking a career change and propose legislative changes to the federal financial aid system as one of the nation’s largest university systems faces historic enrollment decline exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

SUNY’s total enrollment is down 4.7%, or 18,600 students across its 64 campuses, from fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 enrollment figures. SUNY has 92,386 fewer students than it did 10 years ago — a change of —19.7%.

Applications were down 9%. Only SUNY’s doctoral program showed gains of 0.2% year-over-year and up 1% since fall 2019 before the start of the COVID pandemic.

“We have to do things differently,” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras told SUNY’s Board of Trustees.

Malatras stressed the need to present more enrollment opportunities to prospective students and posed examples of other education models where a person can start their degree at any point during the year.

“Our students don’t care about our schedule — we should care about their schedule,” Malatras said. “This is a wholly different concept than what we do.”

Columbia-Greene Community College in Greenport, Columbia County, had an enrollment of 1,316 students, or a decrease of 8.9%, according to SUNY’s preliminary fall 2021 data.

The college was down about 6% for the current fall semester as of Monday, Columbia-Greene Community College President Carlee Drummer said.

The southern Capital Region SUNY community college enrollment is down 37.4% over the last decade, or down 786 students total since fall 2011.

C-GCC’s ongoing enrollment decline is not expected to cause a reduction of college staff, classes or services, said Drummer, who anticipated fewer students and budgeted for a worst-case 9% reduction.

“We were very, very fiscally prudent,” Drummer said. “We were looking at trends ... and I am a very cautious person. I said to our [Chief Financial Officer], ‘If we think it’s going to be a 5% decline, we should make it higher.’

“...It’s not that we’re not worried — I worry all the time — but wanted to be realistic about where we were going to be. Once we get COVID in the rearview mirror, I think we’re going to be holding our own.”

An increased number of students decided to take a gap year, or break in their academic studies, or opted to continue their college learning virtually since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“That’s a national phenomenon — that’s not just Columbia-Greene Community College,” Drummer said. “It’s happening across the country.”

Drummer also noted the lower birth rate contributing to fewer high school and college students.

The Twin Counties — comprised of small, rural schools and communities — has retained decreasing numbers of young families and young adults of child-bearing age over the past decades. At the same time, more families have relocated to Columbia and Greene counties from New York City and other more populous urban areas to evade higher-risk communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The population is definitely declining,” Drummer said. “We are very eager to see what’s going to happen with so many new people coming to our counties from the city. We’re certainly hoping we have school-aged children, but if they’re enrolling in grade school, it’s going to take them awhile to get to college.”

C-GCC’s enrollment woes are not unique, especially among SUNY’s 30 community colleges.

The 10-year enrollment trend at SUNY’s 30 community colleges has also reached new lows, following a consecutive reduction over the last decade.

SUNY has 10,671 or 6.1% fewer students enrolled in its community colleges over one year, or since fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 data — and is down 84,408 students or 34.1% over 10 years since fall 2011.

“We have worked hard at the system and campus levels to engage prospective students,” SUNY Provost-in-Charge Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik said during last week’s Academic Affairs meeting with the Board of Trustees.

The college has seen an increased number of part-time students in the pandemic’s wake.

Drummer also stressed the need to offer alternative course delivery, or more opportunities outside the typical 16-week semester to attract post-traditional students or professionals looking for additional skills.

“There are no boundaries,” she said of pivoting to more flexible learning options to accommodate student work schedules or family responsibilities.

Drummer is speaking with other Capital Region campuses and organizations to share resources and ideas to creatively attract more students, in addition to increased advertising.

“We will continue to try to be as flexible as we can,” Drummer said. “We are the community’s college and we want to do what we can to help the community.”

SUNY cannot rely on altered marketing strategies alone, Malatras said last week to trustees, adding SUNY officials at all campuses need to work together to fight the ongoing enrollment decline, including Educational Opportunity Programs in mid-year and appealing to 25-44-year-old learners — SUNY’s growing demographic for students in the middle of a career transition.

“They’re going to go to a labor training center or they’re going to go to us,” Malatras said.

A new approach to the federal financial aid system must also be posed to legislators, Malatras said. The current model discourages part-time attendance or students who will not graduate on the traditional two- or four-year schedule.

“It would be good for us to work with CUNY and other institutions to say we may want to have a fresh look at the financial aid model to be more inclusive as opposed to more restrictive,” Malatras said.

Fall 2021 enrollment counts will be finalized later this month, and will reflect a 1% and 2% difference in the preliminary figures. A report will be released in November when detailed numbers and national benchmark data will be available.

Enrollment within SUNY’s technology sector has remained about level.

Enrollment numbers briefly ticked up in spring 2021, but the reasons for the enrollment fluctuations during the pandemic remain largely estimates as the public health emergency continues into its 19th month.

In the spring, the fate of in-person classes remained largely unknown when most students were applying for the fall 2021 semester, potentially driving numbers lower.

“I am hopeful the fact our campuses are more fully reopened now and events are happening and there’s energy and enthusiasm, I think that will go a long way in demonstrating to people that we’re back,” Malatras said. “We’re in this weird period over the last several months where students were waiting to see how it’s going to go.”

Officials also noted students may have been hesitant to return to in-person classroom instruction during the spring application period.

SUNY boasts a 97% student vaccination rate. In May, SUNY mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for all students taking in-person classes in SUNY’s 64-campus higher education system this fall.

“Let’s get that out where people understand if you’re looking for a safe place to learn, this is it,” Trustee Stanley Litow said.

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