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Shrinking enrollment puts pressure on higher ed in WNY

It’s one of the biggest dichotomies in higher education today: As the need for college-educated workers grows, the number of people attending college in Western New York continues to shrink.

Total enrollment in the region’s 20 public and private colleges and universities peaked at 118,309 in 2010 and has been in decline ever since, according to federal data. Just two of the institutions – the University at Buffalo and Jamestown Community College – did not lose students when total enrollment for the region dipped by 5.5 percent to 111,795 in 2014.

Take out the numbers for UB and overall college enrollment for the region dropped by more than 8 percent over the five years.

The changes aren’t a surprise, because fewer young people are graduating from high schools. While the percentage of students graduating from high school has grown across the nation, the sizes of graduating classes have been shrinking.

The number of high school graduates in New York State grew annually between 2002 and 2009 before slipping into zero- or negative-growth mode the past several years. That trend is expected to continue through 2031, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which projects the number of high school graduates by state.

Patrons and students enjoy lunch in the atrium at Center for the Arts at the University at Buffalo’s North Campus in Amherst. Bucking the trend, UB has not lost students amid college enrollment drop. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The nation had its highest number of high school graduates in 2013. A decade of smaller graduating classes nationwide is expected until three years of growth between 2024 to 2026 that should push the number of graduates past the 2013 high-water mark. But by 2027, the average size of graduating classes is projected to be smaller than in 2013 again.

Declines will be steeper in the Northeast, home to the overwhelming majority of students at area institutions. In 2013, an estimated 639,000 students graduated from high school in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. That number is projected to decrease to 567,000 by 2030.

The demographic declines put huge pressure on colleges and universities to offer deep tuition discounts to attract students – a practice that cuts into their bottom lines.

“The inescapable fact is that we continue to operate in a very competitive and price-sensitive market in which there are too many schools chasing too few students,” Canisius College President John J. Hurley said in his 2016 convocation address to college faculty, staff and alumni.

The college has eschewed what Hurley called the “easy fix” of simply relaxing admissions standards to bring in more paying students. Canisius became more selective, said Hurley. As a result, it currently enrolls about 2,500 undergraduate students, down from 3,385 undergraduates just five years ago.

Canisius, which also has about 1,200 graduate students, remains one of the largest colleges in Western New York, despite its downsizing.

Smaller colleges don’t have the same kind of wiggle room when it comes to losing enrollment. And many of them already are struggling. A Chronicle of Higher Education survey released in December found that 43 percent of small private colleges had missed both their enrollment goals and their tuition-revenue targets for 2016.

A national higher education consulting firm recently estimated that more than 700 institutions across the country with enrollments of less than 1,000 students were at risk of being too small to survive an era of fewer high school graduates.

“The small colleges in survival mode are unable to draw additional students even as they come to depend more on them to provide needed revenue,” according to a report issued in December by management consulting firm Parthenon-EY.

The Parthenon-EY report urged “deeper alliances” between institutions – of the variety attempted unsuccessfully by St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College. After 18 months of discussions, the two institutions in 2015 called off efforts to merge, while pledging to expand collaborations between the campuses. They have since worked together to develop and launch a new bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity. The program started last fall on both campuses. Students and faculty don’t have to travel between campuses because shared courses use distance-learning technology.

“Mergers and acquisitions offer the chance for institutions to enter new markets or grow faster than competitors do, oftentimes with less risk and expense than trying to do it themselves,” according to the Parthenon-EY report.

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