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Shrinking enrollments challenge area colleges

Western New York area colleges and universities for years braced for an anticipated downturn in the numbers of students that would fill their classrooms and residence halls.

Now, they’re smack in the midst of it and muddling through a demographic shift that has resulted in fewer and fewer high school graduates throughout the Northeast.

Total enrollment among 21 higher education institutions in the eight counties of the region fell by about 6 percent between 2010-11 and 2014-15, according to a Buffalo News analysis of federal education data.

Overall enrollment had been growing for years and peaked in 2010-11, when 119,265 students attended area colleges and universities. That number shrunk to 112,595 in 2014-15, according to the latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who serves on the State University of New York board of trustees, said during a recent higher education forum at Daemen College that the region needs to work harder to get more people enrolled in area colleges and universities.

“A one percent increase in people receiving a higher education in Buffalo and Erie County would add over $700 million in economic development to our community,” said Brown. “But we have to make it a local priority, and if we do, we would see a major impact on the economy of Buffalo and Western New York.”

The downward spike would have been steeper except for two schools, the University at Buffalo and Jamestown Community College, both of which saw total enrollment growth.

UB’s student body grew by 3 percent over the five-year period, to 29,995 students, while Jamestown Community College had an 18 percent increase, to 5,065 students. Jamestown’s numbers, however, are somewhat misleading because many of its students were part-time. The college’s enrollment of full-time equivalent students – a number factoring both full-time and part-time students – was down 2 percent over the five years.

So in effect, UB, already the area’s largest academic institution by far, was the lone school that grew between 2010 and 2015. And UB potentially is looking to grow further. In a “performance improvement plan” submitted last fall to the State University of New York, UB officials said they were examining the possibility of expanding enrollment by more than 7 percent, to 32,160 students, by 2020.

Alfred University, SUNY Geneseo and the SUNY College of Technology at Alfred remained essentially the same size between 2010 and 2015, while D’Youville College, Hilbert College, Daemen College, Villa Maria College, Niagara University, Trocaire College and Genesee Community College had slight to modest enrollment losses.

Canisius College experienced the largest contraction over the five years, going from a total enrollment of 5,111 to 4,181 students, a decrease of 18 percent. Eight other institutions had enrollment drops of at least 10 percent: Medaille College, SUNY Fredonia, SUNY Buffalo State, Niagara County Community College, St. Bonaventure University, Erie Community College, Houghton College and Bryant & Stratton College.

Demographic trends suggest local college enrollment numbers might not perk up any time soon. Annual births in the Northeastern states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont – fell by 22 percent between 1989 and 1997, which means that the estimated high school graduating class sizes for the Northeast are projected to be progressively smaller each year, except for a few years of insignificant growth, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s most recent projections of high school graduates.

Area college officials view the bleak demographics as a major challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

Some of them are working together to develop new ways of marketing the region as a higher education destination for students from outside the area.

“Our goal collectively is to increase the number of students who come to Western New York,” said Kenneth Macur, president of Medaille. “We’ve just got to be better, and collectively we’ve got to bring in more students.”

Macur said Buffalo’s economic emergence in recent years will only help in that effort.

“All boats are going to rise as the city’s renaissance continues to expand,” he said.


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