A year later, governor’s revitalization plan for SUNY still getting off the ground


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

It would be “transformative,” Hochul’s office said at the time, a blueprint that would clinch the State University of New York as “the best statewide system of public higher education in our nation.”

However, the vision and the benchmarks tied to it were too aspirational for some higher ed scholars

They questioned: How could SUNY’s enrollment reach 500,000 students after it nosedived by more than 20% in a decade? After all, the state’s pool of traditional-age college students continues to shrink, and institutions nationwide haven’t bounced back from a pandemic-era enrollment crash.

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

Higher ed experts and faculty leaders say Hochul’s goals require an influx of public funding to achieve. They appear to have progressed minimally in the year-plus since she announced them.

Hochul has expressed optimism about the system’s future, though, especially with the installation of John King, a former U.S. education secretary and New York education commissioner, as its new chancellor. She and some observers say King was the missing piece needed to pull Hochul’s plan together.

A spokesperson for the governor, John Lindsay, responded to questions about the feasibility of Hochul’s plan with an emailed statement.

“Governor Hochul has a bold vision to transform SUNY and secure its status as the best and most equitable public system of higher education in the country,” Lindsay said. “Governor Hochul has announced historic investments in SUNY, and welcomed the appointment of former U.S. Secretary of Education John King as Chancellor, who will continue the full implementation of her vision for the system.”

What’s the problem with SUNY?

While SUNY is the largest comprehensive public higher ed system in the U.S., it has suffered from trends ravaging college enrollment across the nation.

Falling birth rates cut into the number of high school graduates matriculating to the system overall, but its community colleges in particular began shedding students after the Great Recession. Fewer students tend to enroll at community colleges during periods of economic prosperity due to more plentiful work opportunities.

SUNY community college enrollment plummeted by about 34% since fall 2012, down to 159,333 students in fall 2022.

Compounding the systemwide enrollment drop was the spread of COVID-19, which led to an economic contraction that defied previous trends and hammered community colleges’ headcounts the hardest.

Postsecondary education is just now seeing hints of recovery, with undergraduate enrollment dipping only slightly, 0.6%, from the previous year, recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data shows.

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

SUNY’s most prominent institutions, like University of Buffalo, have drawn student interest away from other of its campuses, said Nathan Daun-Barnett, a UB educational leadership and policy professor. 

UB has been able to weather the enrollment downturn by accepting students it normally would not with slightly weaker academic records, Daun-Barnett said. This is an option most SUNY institutions don’t have, as they aren’t brimming with applicants.


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