December 8, 2023

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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled a plan to strengthen the state’s sprawling 64-campus public higher education system early last January, describing it as particularly ambitious.

It would be a “transformational” Hochul office he said thena plan that would establish the State University of New York as “the best statewide system of public higher education in our country.”

However, the vision and the standards associated with it were too ambitious for some higher scholars.

They asked: How could SUNY’s enrollment reach 500,000 students after the more than 20% in ten years? After all, the state fund traditional-age college students is still shrinkingand institutions across the country have not shied away from them registration crash since the pandemic.

And how could Stony Brook University and the University at Buffalo, or UB, which Hochul explained as flagship institutions last year, reap $1 billion a year in federal research funding by 2030? The governor gradually invested in this area, like millions of dollars for STEM facilities at UB, but the $1 billion goal is more in line with research funding levels at prestigious institutions like John Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley.

University experts and faculty leaders say Hochul’s goals require an influx of public funding to achieve. They seem to have made minimal progress in the year plus since she announced them.

Hochul expressed optimism about the future of the system, especially with the installation of John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education and New York City Commissioner of Education, as the new chancellor. She and some observers argue that King was the missing piece needed to assemble Hochul’s plan.

Gov. John Lindsay’s spokesman responded to questions about the feasibility of Hochula’s plan in an emailed statement.

“Governor Hochul has a bold vision to transform SUNY and ensure its status as the nation’s best and most equitable public higher education system,” Lindsay said. “Governor Hochul announced a historic investment in SUNY and welcomed the appointment of former U.S. Secretary of Education John King as chancellor, who will continue to fully realize her vision for the system.”

What is the problem with SUNY?

Although SUNY is the largest comprehensive public higher education system in the US, it suffers from trends that are ravaging college enrollment across the country.

The declining birth rate is decreasing to the number of high school graduates enrolled in the system overall, but its community colleges in particular began to drop students after the Great Recession. Fewer students tend to enroll in community colleges during periods of economic prosperity due to greater employment opportunities.

Enrollment at SUNY’s community colleges has fallen about 34% since fall 2012, down to 159,333 students in fall 2022.

Contributing to the system-wide enrollment decline was the spread of COVID-19, which led to an economic downturn that bucked previous trends and hit community college staffing the hardest.

Postsecondary education is currently showing signs of recovery, with undergraduate enrollment down only slightly, 0.6%, from the previous year. They show data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

All of these complications have left SUNY struggling for students — not just in New York’s mammoth higher-education market, which includes big-name colleges like Columbia and Cornell universities, but also among its own institutions.

SUNY’s most prominent institutions, such as the University of Buffalo, have attracted student interest from their other campuses, said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a UB professor of educational leadership and politics.

Daun-Barnett said UB was able to weather the drop in enrollment by accepting students who normally wouldn’t have, with slightly weaker academic records. This is an option that most SUNY institutions do not have because they are not overwhelmed with applicants.

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