As enrollment at private colleges drops, SUNY campuses gain - The Buffalo News
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As enrollment at private colleges drops, SUNY campuses gain

SUNY Buffalo State, bursting at the seams this semester, has tripled up freshmen in some dorm rooms and turned to an unlikely source for help in housing transfer students.

Nearly 200 Buffalo State students will live in Canisius College residence halls this year – a consequence of growing enrollment at the public college and declining enrollment at the private one.

What’s happening at the two campuses, which are two miles apart, highlights a broader trend in college enrollment in Western New York.

Tens of thousands of New York residents will fill the halls and classrooms of the region’s 20 colleges and universities for the start of the 2014-15 academic year this week and next.

But the pool of potential students continues to shrink. The state Education Department projects a drop in the number of high school graduates in New York by nearly 17 percent between 2008 and 2019.

Private colleges and universities in the area are bearing the brunt of enrollment declines.

In the meantime, overall enrollment at State University of New York campuses in the region, including community colleges, saw 6 percent growth between 2008 and 2013, according to a Buffalo News analysis of federal enrollment data.

The University at Buffalo fared particularly well, even with more than 90 percent of its incoming freshmen coming from instate.

UB saw an increase of 1,690 students over the five years – the largest gain among all four-year institutions in the SUNY system.

Five years ago, UB officials promoted an ambitious plan to increase the university’s enrollment by 10,000 students. But state funding to put that plan into action never materialized, and university administrators have quietly backed away from that goal.

This year, UB reduced the target size of its freshman class to 3,350, down from 3,512 in 2013.

“We want to make sure the students we bring in can get their classes,” said Lee H. Melvin, vice provost for enrollment management. “Right now, the plan for us is to stay stable.”

Buffalo State had 198 fewer students in 2013 than in 2008, but a record-setting freshmen class of 2,000 this year will more than reverse the previous declines.

The class includes Shedeene Hewitt, of the Bronx, one of the more than 1,000 freshmen forced to triple up this year because of the huge influx of new students and renovations at a large campus dormitory.

“They tripled up a lot of people, so I figured there were a lot of acceptances this year,” said Hewitt, who will study political science.

Hewitt and her roommates spent part of their first day on campus determining how to reconfigure their Porter Hall room for three people instead of two.

“Right now, it’s tight, but when we all learn to work around each other, it’s not going to be that tight,” she said.

Canisius College had the exact opposite problem this year: lots of dorm space and not enough students to fill it.

The area’s private colleges and universities collectively saw an enrollment decline of nearly 5 percent between 2008 and 2013. Canisius had 388 fewer students in 2013 than in 2008 – about an 8 percent drop.

Medaille College, located between Buffalo State and Canisius, had the steepest decline, 860 students, or 27 percent – although all of that drop-off was in graduate students.

The declines contributed to a $2.2 million deficit last year and prompted college officials in May to shut down the college’s satellite campus in Amherst.

The demographic trough, combined with a brutal recession that steered many would-be students away from college because they simply could not afford it, has led to plenty of soul-searching among administrators.

Area institutions have hired new enrollment managers, redoubled their efforts to recruit students from outside Western and Central New York, opened their doors to more veterans seeking higher education and expanded online course offerings. Four-year schools are putting a heavier emphasis on attracting students from community colleges.

“Enrollment is definitely our biggest priority right now,” said Sister Denise A. Roche, president of D’Youville College, one of a few campuses that managed to gain students over the last five years.

The area’s largest private institution, Canisius College, had an undergraduate population as high as 3,485 in 2007.

But college officials have recalibrated their expectations, and the Jesuit school will likely enroll on the level of 2,500 undergraduates for the foreseeable future, said President John J. Hurley.

Canisius and other schools want to back away from discounting tuition in an effort to fill seats – a practice that has hurt the bottom line at many colleges, which rely heavily on tuition for the bulk of their revenue.

“When you set unrealistically high targets for whatever reason, you then build a cost structure around that, and if the revenue doesn’t materialize, then you’re stuck with the cost,” Hurley said.

Canisius has trimmed $12 million from its operating budget over the last three years, mostly through attrition. This May, 13 nonteaching positions were cut, and a handful of tenured faculty members accepted early retirement incentives. So far, the college has been able to avoid laying off untenured faculty, but it’s still a possibility, Hurley said.

St. Bonaventure University, located outside Olean, recently laid off two staff members and reduced some employees from 12-month to 10-month annual contracts. The university also offered a buyout to senior faculty members.

Overall enrollment at St. Bonaventure dropped by 7 percent in the last five years, and this year’s numbers aren’t any higher.

The freshman class is smaller than what university officials aimed for, despite intensified student recruitment efforts.

“We find we’re working three times harder for every student we land,” said Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure. “We’re off by about 45 in our freshman count. That’s steep for us, and we’d like to build that up next year.”

The lion’s share of undergraduate students at all of the 20 colleges and universities in Western New York traditionally have been state residents.

Demographic realities helped spur the ongoing discussions between St. Bonaventure and Hilbert College in Hamburg about a possible “strategic alliance.”

Private college and university presidents acknowledged that SUNY schools present an increasingly formidable challenge.

“There is no question that SUNY is a significant competition for us,” Hurley said. “The price point is the issue.”

Another factor for the area’s seven Catholic colleges and universities is the decline of the parochial school network in Western New York, which has been battered by dozens of closures over the last decade.

“Those served as a kind of informal feeder system,” Carney said.

Students displaced by Catholic school closures into the public school system are less inclined to seek out a Catholic higher education, she added.

Canisius, looking to expand its reach, plans to focus on the Chicago area as a potential new source of students. Students from warmer parts of the country are less likely to be interested in Canisius, and Chicago still has a significant network of Catholic elementary and high schools, Hurley said.

But any payoff from boosting recruitment in an area probably won’t happen for years, he said.

“There really isn’t a way for an institution to open up a spigot in Cleveland or Chicago and have the students flow,” he said. “It involves a lot of personal relationships. There is no way to go into a new market and flood it with advertising. That’s not the way it’s done.”

Canisius hopes to get more students in the future from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia – a population-dense region where St. Bonaventure also is putting more emphasis, along with Philadelphia, New Jersey and Long Island.

Like D’Youville, some private colleges have bucked the trend of shrinking enrollments, at least so far.

Daemen College and Hilbert College saw slight enrollment growth in 2013, compared with 2008.

At Trocaire College, in South Buffalo, the student body grew by a third – to 1,457 students – and college officials are aiming for 1,500 students in the near future.

Villa Maria College recently announced plans for a residence hall and intercollegiate sports as part of a long-term effort to double enrollment at the Cheektowaga campus.

“We have to grow through our challenges,” said Brian J. Emerson, vice president for enrollment management and student services at Villa Maria.


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