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SUNY and ECC are a bargain Public colleges more selective as students seek less costly options

Western New York's public colleges may not top the U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings, but it could be argued they provide an unbeatable value for budget-conscious students.

With tuition at many of the country's top liberal arts colleges approaching $40,000 a year, even the brightest of students may be disposed to consider far less costly alternatives. That would appear to be a benefit to local public colleges, some of which are beginning to see a spike in enrollment and increased competition for admittance, perhaps raising the bar for local kids seeking to get in.

"As the highly selective schools are getting even more selective and more expensive, there appears to be a cascading effect where we're starting to see more applicants to the socalled second-tier schools, and we're also getting more selective at those schools," said Lesa Lorritts, director of admissions at Buffalo State College.

Buffalo State is still rated as a "less-selective" school, according to 2007 U.S. World News college ranking of the best colleges. However, the annual tuition at Buffalo State and all the State University four-year colleges is $4,350, plus an average of $1,010 in fees. That's a relative bargain for most of Buffalo State's roughly 9,000 undergraduates, who have their pick of over 130 undergraduate programs.

Fredonia State College, another SUNY school only 45 miles from downtown Buffalo, has been moving up in terms of popularity and selectivity. It has a national reputation for its music and arts programs.

"The value of a SUNY education, in terms of actual dollar amount, is $13,300," said Michael Bleecher, interim director of admissions at Fredonia State.

"I would definitely say enrollment has been on the increase over the past 5 to 10 years," he said. "Applications have increased over that same time period, and our indicators - like the high school averages and SAT scores for our applicants - have also increased over that period, and there has been a corresponding increase in selectivity."

In 2005, there were 5,432 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at Fredonia State compared to 4,721 a decade ago. "This is the highest population of students Fredonia has had since at least 1988," said Bleecher.

He credits the value of an education through State University of New York, in general, but two factors in particular: High graduation and retention rates.

"We have the seventh-highest graduation rate for public colleges across the U.S., where there are approximately 260 public colleges," said Bleecher.

"As a parent, I want to know if my child is going to graduate from an institution in 4 years and, secondly, I want to know about the retention rate," he added.

Retention rate is the indicator of whether students at an institution are likely to return after freshman year.

"Our retention rates are within the top 3 in SUNY system. Eighty-five percent of students still enrolled as freshman will return sophomore year. That shows that, as an institution, we're meeting the needs of the students," said Bleecher.

Loritts said Buffalo State also is seeing increases in applicants.

"SUNY is marketing itself much more aggressively than it may have done in past," she said. "Beyond that, there is an increasing awareness [of Buffalo State among prospective students], not only locally, but across state."

Even Erie Community College, a two-year institution, seems to be experiencing residual benefits, according to ECC Director of Admissions Petrina Hill-Cheatom.

"We have seen an increase in enrollment. In addition to that, there also has been an increase in more academically qualified students," she said.

A recent state mandate requiring Regents Diplomas for graduating high school seniors has made a difference, she thinks, in students' preparation for college.

"But it also has to do with affordability," Hill-Cheatom said. "Many parents would like to see their children go to community college initially because of the cost factor, and then transfer to a four-year institution. For the students themselves, it's an opportunity to prove that they are capable of of handling the work in a college setting."

Randy Bowen, associate vice president for enrollment management at ECC, noted that the student population, at slightly under 13,000, is even larger than Buffalo State's.

ECC offers numerous special programs, particularly for those seeking to enter health sciences professions such as nursing and dental hygiene.

"Job opportunities in the health field are growing leaps and bounds," said Bowen.

The school's low tuition, at $2,987 annually for Erie County residents, is quite an upfront savings for those ECC students who then opt to go on to a fouryear college, some of them in them in the decidedly pricey and more selective range.

"From an employer's perspective, it's not where you started, but where you finished," Bowen said.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com