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Why are New York’s community colleges losing students in a strong economy?

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As a strong economy keeps chugging along, New York’s community colleges are finding it harder to enroll students.

Lean economic times often help fill seats at the two-year colleges. Students enroll to add skills and credentials when jobs are hard to come by. Unemployment neared 10 percent in 2010 and enrollment in New York’s community colleges reached all-time highs, but the number of students has steadily declined along with the state’s jobless rate since then.

All but four of the community colleges in the State University of New York system lost students from the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2018. The 11,535 full- and part-time students who enrolled at Westchester Community College in the fall of 2018 marked an 8 percent decrease from the fall of 2017, and a 17 percent drop from 2010. Overall enrollment in the state’s community colleges was measured at just under 200,000 in the fall of 2018, down 5 percent from 2017 and 20 percent since 2010.

community collegeSources: New York Department of Labor; State University of New York.

 

The numbers did not register as a surprise to administrators at Westchester Community College’s Valhalla campus nor with SUNY officials in Albany.

“More people are working instead of taking classes,” said Westchester Community College spokesman Patrick Hennessey. There isn’t much the college can do about that, though WCC has seen an increase in part-time students who are likely working while taking courses.

Hennessey said WCC is more focused on retention and graduation rates of the students it does enroll than the total number of students. State data show 24 percent of the college’s students who enrolled in 2014 left with an associate’s degree within four years, an increase from the 20 percent of students who enrolled in 2010 and did the same.

Community college enrollment was down 3.2 percent nationwide from the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2018, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Takeshi Yanagiura researches national enrollment trends at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College. He said community college enrollment nationwide does tend to mirror economic cycles. But, he added, that doesn’t fully explain recent enrollment declines.

“Nationwide, even as community college enrollment is declining, public four-year university enrollment is increasing after the recession,” Yanagiura said.

For SUNY, the number of students in four-year institutions surpassed community college enrollment for the first time this century in 2015, as New York’s four-year public universities have increased enrollment about 1 percent in the past decade, while community colleges continued to decline. Purchase College has increased enrollment about 2 percent since 2010.

Public colleges in more than half of all U.S. states drew more heavily from tuition dollars than governmental appropriations for the first time ever in 2017, according to the annual State Higher Education Finance report.

New York is not among those states.

Tuition dollars make up about a third of total public higher education revenues, but the state has reduced its education spending. New York was among 45 states in the U.S. that spent less on education in 2018 than 2008 when adjusted for inflation, according to a separate report from the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities. The center found New York had cut its funding for higher education by 2 percent in the past decade.

WCC receives funding from Westchester County and the state. State and county dollars accounted for 52 percent of Westchester Community College’s $121.6 million departmental revenues in its 2017-2018 budget, while tuition accounted for 42 percent. In the college’s 2008-2009 budget, state and county funds accounted for 56 percent of $101.2 million in department revenues and tuition dollars represented 39 percent. In the years between the two budgets, state appropriations for the school barely edged up, from $32.4 million to $33.2 million.

Adjusted for inflation, the state provided WCC with about 14 percent less in buying power.

SUNY officials have argued in previous budget cycles that the state needs to adjust its aid formula for community colleges. Instead of providing appropriations based on total full-time students, SUNY officials say the state should provide colleges with a base level of funding, regardless of enrollment.

Community colleges have not been helped much by the state’s Excelsior scholarship program, which provides grants to cover the full cost of tuition to students from families making less than $125,000 per year. Only 1 percent of Westchester Community College students received the scholarship in 2017, according to a study by the Center for an Urban Future. Just 2.2 percent of community college students in the SUNY system received the scholarship. Part of the problem is that the scholarship requires students to study full time. Part-time students represented 48 percent of all community college enrollees in New York last year, and 47 percent of Westchester Community College’s students.

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