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Report: New York public colleges face challenges

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(The Center Square) — Between a looming enrollment cliff, rising tuition costs and rising student debt, New York’s public colleges and universities face myriad challenges in coming years, according to a new report by the state’s top bean counter.

The report by New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found that public and private colleges and universities in the state are struggling to recruit new students, a problem that has gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

DiNapoli said the review shows that enrollment has led to financial difficulties for several New York higher education institutions, with some downsizing or closing.

“Declining enrollment over the last decade has already hurt the finances of several public and private institutions, forcing a few to downsize or close their doors,” DiNapoli wrote in the report. “Retention of students through the pandemic and ensuring they complete the coursework needed to earn their degrees, particularly at community colleges, has proved challenging.”

In the fall 2022 semester, 896,000 students were enrolled across all postsecondary institutions in New York State, according to the report. It was the lowest total enrollment over 15 years, a decline of about 73,000 full-time students, or 7.6%, since the fall 2008 semester.

The decline was led by the nearly 14% drop in enrollment at public institutions, according to the report, driven by decreases at community colleges that began in 2011.

DiNapoli said the college-age population has been dropping as a share of the total population nationally and is forecast to undergo a precipitous drop beginning in 2025, which he referred to as a looming “enrollment cliff” that will worsen the precarious financial positions of the state’s colleges and universities.

He said the pandemic also spurred a rise in student transfers and withdrawals, or “stop-outs,” with noted declines in transferring community college students to higher degree programs.

Meanwhile, as college costs have grown, student debt burdens have also increased, which DiNapoli said leads some to question the returns from a college degree. Student debt per capita in 2023 was higher in New York ($5,830) than the nationwide average, according to the report, which cites data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

New York’s public and private average undergraduate tuition were both higher than the national average, particularly for in-state costs at two-year public institutions, according to the report. Private four-year tuition, fees, room and board of $58,423 in New York was 26% higher than the national average of $46,313.

Public two-year, or community college, in-state tuition and fees of $5,576 in New York were 59% higher than the national average of $3,501. Public four-year out-of-state tuition and fees were 26% below the national average of $27,091, DiNapoli noted in the report.

The report comes as the state lawmakers are considering increased education funding in the budget for the state’s public colleges and universities. DiNapoli recommends that college leaders set strategic goals, implement new approaches to spur applications and enrollment, address costs and financial aid gaps, and consider partnerships to keep up with innovation.

“Escalating costs and mounting student debt also have led many to question the value of a college degree,” DiNapoli said. “New York’s future depends on our institutions of higher education staying competitive by ensuring they are affordable, are diverse, and nurture a spirit of innovation and community in their students.”

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