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Enrollment Drops at Many Private New York Colleges

Many New York private colleges and universities that enroll mostly in-state students saw their numbers of undergraduates drop this fall, in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s scholarship push at public institutions .


Leslie Brody

Many New York private colleges and universities that enroll mostly in-state students saw their numbers of undergraduates drop this fall, in the wake of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s scholarship push at public institutions .

The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York found that at 30 of the 48 private schools that serve mostly New Yorkers, overall enrollment of first-time freshman from New York dropped 8% from last year, to 9,935. At these schools, at least 65% of undergraduates hail from in state.

The commission, which advocates for these private schools, released the member survey Tuesday. Spokeswoman Emily Donohue said it wasn’t clear how much the enrollment declines could be attributed to the state’s new Excelsior Scholarship for public institutions, in addition to other demographic trends, but her group worried the program’s toll on independent schools would grow.

“We don’t want this to be us versus them,” she said. “This is about making sure students can come to college.”

In April Mr. Cuomo signed a state budget including the Excelsior Scholarship, which lets students in families making up to $100,000 a year enroll in New York’s public colleges tuition-free, starting this fall. The program, which costs taxpayers $87 million this school year for 23,000 recipients, kicks in after students have exhausted other sources of federal and state assistance, and doesn’t cover fees.

Abbey Fashouer, a spokeswoman for the governor, said enrollment declines at private colleges stemmed from rising tuition and mounting student debt.

“Instead of criticizing the state’s efforts, we encourage these schools to work in partnership with us to make college more affordable for everyone,” she said in an email. This year the state added $3,000 tuition grants for students at private colleges that agree to match these awards, in addition to $400 million yearly in tuition aid through other programs, she said.

The commission’s survey found that overall freshman enrollment roughly remained flat, at 55,113, for 80 member schools that responded. Its leaders’ concerns focused on 48 schools that rely mostly on New York students and, by the survey’s count, shed 1,535 jobs during the past year.

The governor’s office says enrollment at private campuses was shrinking long before the Excelsior program. Its officials cite state Education Department data that independent colleges and universities had full-time undergraduate head count of about 261,200 in fall of 2016, down from about 272,700 five years earlier.

Margaret Drugovich, president of Hartwick College in Oneonta in upstate New York, said her school sought 300 New York freshman this fall and enrolled 270. She said it wasn’t clear the drop was due to Excelsior, but she was concerned that the governor’s promise of a tuition-free degree called into question the value for families of investing in education.

Hartwick, where annual tuition is $43,312, offers a more personal experience than large public options, and applicants deserve a wide range of choices, Ms. Drugovich said.

“We don’t know what the impact (of Excelsior) is,” she said, “but it makes it harder to make the argument that people should invest in their children’s education.”

Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, said her Jesuit school enrolled 488 freshmen from New York this fall, down from 597 last year. She said the college boosted its academic selectivity to distinguish itself in a crowded field, and recruited more aggressively in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Le Moyne, where annual tuition is $32,840, enrolled 570 freshmen overall this fall, down from 600 last year.

Ms. LeMura predicted the Excelsior program was too expensive for taxpayers to be sustainable. She said the public and private sectors should “depend on collaboration, not cannibalization.”

“We should be sharing intellectual resources, not taking students from one another,” she added.

Officials at State University of New York said enrollment of first-time undergraduates dropped from 82,650 in the fall of 2014 to 78,971 a year ago. Final enrollment numbers for this fall aren’t available yet, but the school said about 17,300 students are likely to receive Excelsior Scholarship dollars.