Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the State University of New York System requires students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Only students accessing SUNY facilities in-person are required to be vaccinated while faculty and staff are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.

GENESEO – Enrollment at SUNY Geneseo is down more than 20 percent since 2010, tentative data released by the college earlier this months shows.

Addressing SUNY Geneseo’s College Council during an Oct. 1 meeting, President Denise Battles attributed the decrease, in part, to the pandemic, which she said is “continuing to have a fairly profound impact on enrollment patterns” at institutions of higher education across the country.

“That certainly is the case at Geneseo,” said Battles.

According to Battles, 4,545 students are enrolled at SUNY Geneseo for the fall 2021 semester, a 20.2-percent decrease from its 12-year high of 5,694 in fall 2010, enrollment data on the college’s website show.

Battles stressed the numbers are “tentative,” but expressed confidence they wouldn’t change much

“They are a very, very good approximation of where we expect to be in the final analysis,” she said

While Battles noted the 1,009 first time, new students enrolled at SUNY Geneseo for the fall 2021 semester marks a more than 12-percent increase over the 891 who were enrolled in fall 2020, the college’s freshman class is still nearly 25 percent smaller than it was in fall 2017 when it comprised 1,323 students.

In the face of declining enrollment, the college chose to close three residence halls for the fall 2021 semester – Niagara Hall on south campus and Livingston and Jones halls on north campus.

“The halls are being maintained for use or residency as needs and demands shift,” said college spokesperson Monique Patenaude.

This semester, the college was also forced to close Letchworth Hall - one of its three main dining halls - due to staffing shortages which Patenaude stressed are occurring “not only in our area, but nationally.”

“We continue to welcome people to apply for open positions,” said Patenaude.

Mat Felthousen, executive director of Campus Auxiliary Services, a non-profit affiliated with the college that administers its dining facilities, provided additional details on CAS’s worker shortage during a meeting in September with the college’s Student Association, according to The Lamron, SUNY Geneseo’s student newspaper.

“Very late in August, about a week or two before classes started, we discovered that people we were expecting to come back did not,” said Felthousen, according to The Lamron.

“We’re down full-time employees, we’re trying to cover with some students shifts and vice versa,” added Pam Connor, associate executive director for CAS, according to The Lamron.

To read more from The Lamron on CAS’s staffing troubles, click here.

To view past enrollment data for SUNY Geneseo, click here.

A broader trend

The issue of declining enrollment is not unique to SUNY Geneseo.

Across the State University of New York system, enrollment is down 4.7 percent, or 18,600 students across its 64 campuses in one year from fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 enrollment numbers. SUNY has 92,386 fewer students than it did 10 years ago — a downward change of 19.7 percent.

Applications were down 9 percent across the system this spring. Only SUNY’s doctoral program showed gains of 0.2 percent year-over-year and up 1 percent since fall 2019 before the start of the pandemic.

“This is a moment in time where we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘How do we do better?’” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras told The Daily News of Batavia, the County News’ sibling newspaper. “The declining enrollment environment is not just a SUNY issue — it’s a national issue of higher education.”

Adapting to more flexible course schedules and opportunities to meet changing student needs is critical, he said, but only a part of the larger issue of education equity in poor and minority communities, which often lack investments in businesses, education and infrastructure.

“How do we connect to those individuals who have been left behind or who don’t think are worth it?” Malatras asked. “It’s not really an enrollment challenge, it’s an equity challenge. The enrollment numbers are just telling you a symptom of the larger problem.”

Learners ages 25 to 44 years old make up SUNY’s fastest-growing demographic for students in the middle of a career transition.

“They’re going to go to a labor training center or they’re going to go to us,” the chancellor added.

Genesee Community College had 4,645 students this semester, or a decline of 1.9%, according to preliminary fall 2021 data. But additional students have enrolled since, reversing the trend to a 3.1% increase in one year, said Justin M. Johnston, vice president of development and external affairs and the executive director of the GCC Foundation.

“The pandemic caused a number of recruitment challenges, mostly relating to the inability to have an in-person presence in local and feeder high schools,” Johnston said. “Nevertheless, GCC’s status as a leader in online and hybrid learning has supported our efforts in navigating these ever-changing waters. While applications for new students were down 20% compared to the year prior, our staff was persistent in personalized applicant outreach efforts, which resulted in minimal enrollment declines this year. As there is fluidity in early semester enrollment day to day, enrollment is presently up 3.1% year over year as of this writing, compared to the original 1.9% decrease in the report.”

Fall 2021 enrollment counts will be finalized later this month, and will reflect a 1% and 2% difference in the preliminary figures. SUNY will release a report in November when detailed numbers and national benchmark data become available.

Administrators at several SUNY campuses have said the lack of in-person visits and communication with teachers, guidance counselors and prospective students during the COVID pandemic have deeply hampered recruitment efforts.

Other students also struggle with reliable internet connectivity, which impacted their success to learn remotely, and affected the eagerness of new students to apply to as the pandemic continues.

SUNY, which boasts a 97% student vaccination rate, requires students accessing SUNY facilities in-person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to be on campus and returned to mainly in-person classes this fall.

While the requirement doesn’t apply to faculty and staff, SUNY says they are “strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.”

A push for state aid

It remains unclear how the enrollment crises will impact future state investments into SUNY.

The chancellor remained tirelessly positive about legislative leaders continuing to wholly fund, and not slash, SUNY’s overall budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins April 1.

“If you invest in us, we pay big dividends — we will turn it around and give more opportunities to students,” Malatras said.

The SUNY and City University of New York systems endured about $56 million in cuts since 2017. In February, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed cutting funding SUNY community colleges by $35 million in 2021-22 and another $11 million in 2022-23, citing ongoing enrollment decline, but lawmakers made the higher education systems whole in the final 2021-22 budget.

About 2.2 million New Yorkers ages 25 to 44 years old do not have any college education.

Roughly 50,000 New Yorkers are enrolled in online higher education programs outside the state.

Malatras stressed state lawmakers need to invest more heavily in SUNY and CUNY because of the enrollment decline to offer more opportunities to students and reverse the trend.

“We need more investment, not less in a time when you have hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs because of a skills gap,” he added.

Funding to expand SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program, which provides extra academic and personal support to students who did not think college was an option, could help ease declining enrollment, Malatras said.

There are currently 14,000 applicants for 8,000 spaces in the opportunity program, which boasts higher retention and graduation rates than SUNY’s overall student body.

Malatras posed examples to SUNY’s Board of Trustees during several discussions about enrollment earlier this month about other education models where a person can start their degree at any point during the year.

SUNY has eliminated application fees for low-income students, and its new website at that helps potential students search opportunities within any of the system’s 64 campuses at the same time.

The 10-year enrollment trend at SUNY’s community colleges has also reached new lows, following a consecutive reduction over the last decade.

SUNY has 10,671 or 6.1% fewer students enrolled in its community colleges over one year, or since fall 2020, according to preliminary fall 2021 data — and is down 84,408 students or 34.1% over 10 years since fall 2011.

“We have worked hard at the system and campus levels to engage prospective students,” SUNY Provost-in-Charge Shadi Shahedipour-Sandvik said during an Academic Affairs meeting with the Board of Trustees earlier this month.

Malatras also noted the lower birth rate contributing to fewer high school and college students — especially in the Northeast.

A new approach to the federal financial aid system must also be posed to legislators, Malatras told trustees earlier this month. The current model discourages part-time attendance or students who will not graduate on the traditional two- or four-year schedule.

Enrollment within SUNY’s technology sector has remained about level.

In the spring, the fate of in-person classes remained largely unknown when most students were applying for the fall 2021 semester, potentially driving numbers lower.

“In crisis, there’s opportunity,” Malatras said. “If we really get the word out and really become nimble and agile and meet the needs of the modern students, the opportunities that we can provide are boundless and it means all of it will be OK.”

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