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Purchase College's Approach to Combating SUNY Enrollment Declines and Closures

By Paige Merz

SUNY Purchase is taking measures to keep up with declining enrollment, an issue that has caused other SUNY's to cut programs (Photo by Natalie Tulloch)

In recent years, colleges across the country have taken a hit as Gen Z rethinks the value of an upper-level education. How will Purchase College, a top 10 public liberal arts institution, combat this rapid decline in enrollment?

In 2013, Purchase College's enrollment stood at 4,148 students, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. A decade later, enrollment has sharply declined to 3,257, making nearly a 25% decrease.

“What was once considered a public good is now being viewed with skepticism,” said Caitlin Read, dean of enrollment management. “More and more families are looking for college to be a direct preparation for a specific career.”

The New York Times reported that 19% of all undergraduate degrees awarded are in a business related field, a program that Purchase does not offer. This could possibly be due to an anticipated straight path to a high paying career, unlike many liberal arts degrees that tend to have a higher payout in the mid-career level, according to Read.

As a result, liberal arts programs tend to be the first cut within upper-level education. In 2023, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Fredonia were two arts-focused institutions to cut programs after facing financial deficits. The programs taking the largest hits were media and music related programs, such as music performance at SUNY Potsdam and visual arts at SUNY Fredonia.

Overall, 250 transfer students were enrolled at Purchase to begin the 2023 fall term. Of this, five students enrolled through a contract allowing students to finish their desired program, also known as a teach-out agreement, with Cazenovia College, located in Madison County, which closed in 2023, according to Read.

Nathaniel Evans, a junior studying communications, transferred to Purchase from SUNY Fredonia. Evans was not directly affected by major budget cuts but “Fredonia is rapidly declining,” he wrote via direct message.

During the 2023-2024 school year Fredonia had dropped more than half of their available majors and neglected to give students prior notice, Evans wrote. “The arts program got royally flushed out last semester.”

Students at SUNY Fredonia started a movement called “Students for Fredonia,” where they are pushing against administration to avoid further cuts.

“What is most disheartening is the way the administration handled the announcement of the cuts and the lack of transparency,” wrote Jasmine Johnson, an art history major at SUNY Fredonia and an admin of @students.for.fredonia on Instagram. “Their decision was under researched and lacked faculty input, and they refuse to give us answers.”

The shifting population within New York State has also played into the loss of interest with SUNY colleges, according to Read. Half a million New Yorkers left the state in 2022, USA Today reported, this due to high taxes and to improve their quality of life.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s “Knocking at the College Door" projected that the total of public and private high schools will drop 14% by 2037 in response to population decreases.

Due to decreasing enrollment, Purchase is expected to receive less New York State funding than previous years, according to faculty presiding officer and journalism professor, Andrew Solomon. The first initiative to balance spending and avoid a deficit, the situation that SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Fredonia found themselves in, will be to cut four percent of spending per year, or $2 million annually.

Purchase’s main source of income is through state funding, according to Salomon. “The big driver is enrollment,” he said. “We get most of our money by the number of students on the undergraduate level.”

Purchase College is actively keeping up with highlighting successful alumni online, attending college fairs and having professors call families to discuss the benefits of a liberal arts education.

“We would not be where we are as humans if it wasn’t for liberal arts,” wrote Evans. “I fully understand why there is a push for science and math, they help us prosper and progress, but what the country doesn’t understand is that the liberal arts do the same.”

The admissions office spends a significant amount of time combating the idea that a degree in the liberal arts won't be profitable, according to Read. “There is a perception out there that all educational debt is bad, so it creates a challenge for higher education.”

The average salary for those holding a liberal arts degree is $54,000, in comparison to other fields averaging a compensation of $64,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We’re at a point where things are going to change quite a bit, I think there will be more college closures,” said Read. Purchase College is positioned to meet the needs of these students through transfer possibilities, according to Read.

The fear of this happening to Purchase is creeping in the back of students' minds, Evans wrote. “Liberal arts is what puts Purchase on the map for SUNY – I think they would get a lot of backlash, even more than Fredonia, if they tried something like that.”

“We have a strong reputation in our field,” said Read. “You can study our majors at a lot of different places but you don’t get the Purchase College experience.”



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