ALBANY — Enrollment in New York's State University system could drop by "tens of thousands of students" over the next five years unless the system finds ways to bolster recruitment, State University Chancellor Kristina Johnson has told lawmakers.

Johnson told members of a legislative budget panel Tuesday that the SUNY system faces heightened challenges as a result of "outmigration" — the phenomenon of New Yorkers leaving for other states without significant immigration or new births within the state.

SUNY now has approximately 415,000 students at its network of 64 university and college campuses.

"If we don't have some sort of intervention with regard to garnering more out of state students or increasing the number of students who go to higher ed in the state, or through our online platform, then we will be down probably tens of thousands of more students," Johnson said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed $178 billion state budget would increase SUNY funding by 6.5 percent as part of a $1.2 billion overall boost to higher education.

Johnson said while demographic reports suggest New York's population of people ranging in age from 18 to 24 is declining, it is gaining population for those whose ages run from 24 to 44.

She also said that while there is growing interest in online education, approximately 40,000 New Yorkers are now enrolled in online college programs based in other states. "That's crazy," she said. "We have to capture that here."

Separately from the hearing, E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, said projections have called for a national decline in number of college-age people born after 2000. "Outmigration is a factor here in New York, but not the main factor," he noted.

McMahon pointed out New York has the largest private higher education sector in the nation. "The challenge (for the state) is to keep those kids here once they graduate," he said.

Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professions the faculty union at SUNY schools, said that for more than a decade, SUNY campuses have been "financially staggered" by the state's "ongoing disinvestment" in the system.

Kowal took direct aim at a proposal from the SUNY administration for a capital construction matching program that would provide the campuses with $2 in state funding for every $1 they raise.

"This proposal will divide SUNY campuses into two groups -- those that can afford to access the matching funds and those that can't," said Kowal. Public higher education, he argued, should not have to rely on philanthropy.

Kowal also said many campuses are struggling from a growing deficit known as the "TAP Gap," the portion of tuition that the campuses waive for students qualifying for the tuition assistance program. This has resulted in a $70 million deficit throughout the system following a series of tuition hikes, he said.

The SUNY Plattsburgh campus, for instance, is facing a $3 million deficit. "The TAP Gap there is slightly over $2 million," Kowal said. "If it were addressed, it would diminish deeply the gap that that campus faces."

The SUNY Cobleskill campus, where Kowal is employed as a professor, has a TAP Gap of $1 million, he said, an amount that if addressed could alleviate the overall $2 million deficit at the campus.

Cuomo has proposed an expansion of the Excelsior scholarship program so that students from families with annual incomes of up to $150,000 would be eligible. The current income limit is $125,000. Total funding for the program would grow to $146 million.

The governor also wants to increase funding for the tuition assistance program for students both at private and public colleges.

Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges, urged lawmakers to provide funding to increase the minimum tuition assistance award from $500 to $1,000 over three years, while boosting the maximum tuition award from $5,165 to $6,000.

"It’s essential that we focus our efforts on supporting all low- and moderate-income students, whether they choose to study at private, not-for-profit or public institutions," Labate said.

The private colleges and universities in New York educate some 40 percent of the state's 1.2 million higher education students, Labate said.

  

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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