Overall enrollment at area colleges and universities remained flat in 2017, with half of four-year institutions showing small gains in the size of their student populations and the other half reporting declines.
But the number of students enrolled at four-year colleges and universities in Western New York went down by more than 3,000 people from five years ago, a Buffalo News analysis has found. Just four of the 16 institutions experienced growth between fall of 2013 and fall of 2017. And three institutions – Canisius College, SUNY Buffalo State and Houghton College – now have the fewest students on their campuses in more than 30 years.
New York State's new free tuition program – implemented this past May, after most students had decided on a school – did not appear to steer many students away from private institutions and into public ones this fall. But private colleges are bracing for that possibility in 2018, when the application process for the next round of free tuition Excelsior Scholarships coincides with admissions and financial aid cycles.
More than 22,000 students received some level of the state's new Excelsior Scholarship, with a fifth of those students attending State University of New York schools in Western New York.
Some private colleges are taking or considering dramatic steps to better compete with the powerful allure of free tuition.
- Canisius College chopped nearly $8,000 off its sticker price for 2018.
- St. Bonaventure is adding as much as $4,000 to scholarship awards for students who qualify for Excelsior.
- Ithaca College in Tompkins County recently introduced a New York State Tuition Award for New York students from families with incomes of $125,000 or less. They can get as much as $6,000 in aid per year for four years.
- Houghton College announced last week that students who graduate can return for an extra year for free if they don't find a job.
- Niagara University is studying the possibility of offering differential tuition rates by program, based on starting incomes of graduates in those programs.
"Excelsior is here to stay, and we need to do something to kind of break through and to get the attention of prospective students," Canisius President John J. Hurley said.
Canisius tuition reset
In terms of enrollment, Canisius has long been the region's largest private college. Enrollment climbed above 5,100 students in 2011, but the college has been shrinking ever since. Overall student headcount at Canisius dropped by 24 percent over the past five years, and Niagara University now enrolls nearly 500 more students than its athletics rival.
College officials pegged some of the decline on a perception problem. Too many students and families were looking at the college's sticker price tuition, which is currently $34,966, and deciding it was out of reach financially, even though Canisius offered generous discounts to most of its students.
Instead of the big discounts, college officials decided in October to lower the sticker price. Canisius rolled back its tuition for 2018-19 to 2008 levels. Instead of $34,966 or higher, tuition will be $27,000.
The big announcement has been accompanied in recent weeks by a new marketing and advertising campaign that emphasizes Canisius' affordability. College officials expect the new pricing model to help turn around the enrollment losses by getting Canisius on the radar of students and families who previously would have ruled it out.
"With a 5 percent increase in freshmen enrollment, which really is about 30 students, the program is just about break even for us. Everything above that starts to improve the situation," Hurley said. "That's just year one. As you roll this over four years, then it multiplies."
Canisius' enrollment has dipped most dramatically in recent years, but all of the region's colleges and universities are in the same boat: Lower birthrates from years ago now mean smaller high school graduating classes.
"There are just flat out fewer students of college age each year," said Gary Olson, president of Daemen College.
And since tuition dollars are the main source of revenue for area colleges and universities, hitting enrollment targets is crucial to most schools' bottom lines.
The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York estimated in March that Excelsior would threaten the viability of many of the state's private colleges, and lead to thousands of job losses statewide. In Western New York, the lobby organization estimated an enrollment decline of 2,749 students. It pegged regional job losses at 1,377 positions – or $3.8 million in lost tax revenues. CICU issued a new analysis Tuesday showing that most of the 48 private colleges and universities in New York that enroll primarily state residents saw enroll declines this fall. Overall enrollment of first-time freshmen from New York at those private institutions was down by 8 percent from 2016, according to CICU.
Bracing for hit
Canisius for years set tuition higher than any of the 20 other colleges and universities in Western New York – and was still able to meet its enrollment targets. But that began changing a few years ago. Now, the price cut will move Canisius into the middle of the pack in tuition for four-year colleges and universities in the region. But it also limits Canisius' ability to dole out big scholarships.
Other area schools said they were unlikely to follow suit on a tuition reset, and some colleges and universities were leaning toward increasing their scholarship awards in an effort to combat free tuition.
St. Bonaventure has experienced two successive years of enrollment growth, but is still down by 7 percent from five years ago. To keep momentum, the university is looking to attract top students with added scholarship money of up to $4,000.
Most families today are looking past sticker price for a bottom line figure of what it's going to cost for their child to attend a college, once financial aid is factored in, said St. Bonaventure President Dennis DePerro.
"I think they're going to find our financial aid package is as attractive as it's ever been," he said.
The university didn't see signs of Excelsior's impact on 2017 enrollment figures, but university officials anticipate more fallout for 2018.
"We expect that it's going to hit harder. That's the primary reason we increased the scholarship awards, particularly for those who qualify for Excelsior," DePerro said.
At its largest in the late 1980s, St. Bonaventure exceeded 2,800 students. This year, enrollment stands at 2,100. DePerro said the university's ideal size is probably around 2,400 students. With new programs in the allied health professions in the development pipeline, DePerro expects to get to that level in a few years.
Some State University of New York comprehensive colleges have struggled as much as private institutions to attract students in recent years. SUNY Fredonia, for example, mothballed a residence hall a couple of years ago when there simply weren't enough students living on campus. Enrollment at Fredonia dipped by nearly 800 students between 2013 and 2017, helping to fuel of budget deficit of $8 million this year.
College officials were encouraged this fall by a small increase in students from 2016, including Fredonia's largest freshmen class since 2008. They see other positive signs for 2018, such as a third more applications for admission at this time of year when compared with 2016. But the college also is taking a more long-term approach to developing prospective students, including creating a pre-college outreach office that helps prepare students as early as seventh and eighth grade for the academic rigor of college.
The college also has refocused attention on nearby high schools. Some students from those high schools now can attend Fredonia tuition free and save further on expenses by commuting to campus.
"We have a pretty nice size college-going population here," said Cedric Howard, vice president of enrollment and student services at Fredonia. "If we do a better job of retaining students, it's more cost efficient for them and they're more likely to remain in the area and search for employment in the area long term."
Howard anticipates enrollment climbing back to about 5,300 undergraduate and graduate students within three to four years.
Houghton College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Allegany County, is trying to turn around enrollment declines through a series of innovative strategies, which include a pledge to give graduates a free bonus year of college if they don't land a job or get accepted into graduate school in their field of choice.
The college also is offering all new students in 2018 a $2,500 per year scholarship, and is in the midst of a $70 million capital campaign to help fund scholarships going forward.
"Obviously, Excelsior was part of that equation," said Ryan Spear, director of admissions. Surveys of prospective students who chose another college in 2017 showed that 22 percent picked a SUNY two- or four-year campus. That was up from about 15 percent in previous years, indicating that Excelsior may have played a factor in their decision, said Spear.
The dearth in traditional college students has prompted Houghton to pursue other possibilities. A few years ago, the college launched a two-year program in Buffalo to serve immigrants and refugees. The program boasts a retention rate of better than 80 percent and now enrolls about 60 students. It spawned a similar program that started this fall in Utica, another city with a large immigrant and refugee population.
"Where the Northeast is going to see gains is in the first generation, traditionally under-represented students," Spear said. "These are underserved populations that fit with our mission."
Many private college administrators continued to express frustration about the Excelsior program, labeling it a gimmick and saying it distracts students and families from pursuing the college that fits best for them.
They point to higher graduation rates and job placement rates at their institutions as proof that students get what they pay for.
Niagara University estimated that Excelsior had a minor impact on enrollment this fall. The university had been "running ahead" on deposits last spring and then experienced a "significant plateauing" after free tuition was approved in the state budget, said the Rev. James Maher, president of Niagara University.
"The program was advertised as free tuition," Maher said. "It's really more of a restricted scholarship program on top of the TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) aid."
"It sort of stymied our momentum a bit," he added.
The upshot is that Excelsior may prod students and families to become more informed about how to finance higher education, Maher said. And in the long run, that could benefit places like Niagara that have a track record of academic quality and return on investment, he said.
"Our focus is on engagement and excellence and community service," he said. "If we do that people will come to us."