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ALBANY — Amid a downturn in the economy and new public health concerns, New York’s 64-campus State University system opened this semester with 5.7 percent fewer students than it had one year ago.

Several campuses offering graduate programs have generally seen a significant drop of 20 percent in the number of international students they attract, according to data released by SUNY administrators this week.

The statewide drop has been paced by a decline of some 10 percent in enrollments at SUNY’s community colleges, continuing what has been a steady erosion over the past decade at those campuses.

CAMPUS BY CAMPUS

Niagara Community College, for instance, saw its enrollment decline by 9.8 percent, one of the biggest slides across the state. Since 2010, it has lost 40.2 percent of its enrollment.

SUNY Plattsburgh came close to holding steady when the new semester arrived, with just 2 percent fewer students than it had a year ago.

But enrollments at some upstate campuses inched higher. SUNY Oneonta and SUNY Delhi enjoyed slight enrollment increases of 3.4 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.

In nearby Schoharie County, however, SUNY Cobleskill began the new semester with 9 percent fewer students. Its current enrollment is now 19.5 percent below its 2010 number.

Stanley Litow, a SUNY board of trustees member and former IBM executive, told fellow trustees that the decline in overall enrollment came after students had to decide on their educational options as the nation was gripped by the coronavirus epidemic.

“High schools were shut down just as students were applying for universities and colleges nationwide,” Litow said.

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS

The decline in international students is expected to have an outsized impact because they pay higher tuition than students from New York and they also enhance campuses by making student bodies more diverse, he said.

The total enrollment at all SUNY campuses was 394,567 as of Sept. 1, SUNY reported. One year earlier it was 418,406.

“This is pretty much right in the middle of the pattern we are seeing nationwide,” said Fred Kowal, president of the United University Professionals, the SUNY faculty union.

“The massive downturn in the economy has hurt tremendously, in terms of families’ ability to afford college,” Kowal said. “SUNY is still a bargain. But there needs to be state funding for the campuses. They are so dependent on enrollment.”

WHEN THE SMOKE CLEARS

All colleges, due to both economic and enrollment trends, are expected to face tall challenges over the next several years, with accompanying concerns for the regions hosting them, said E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank.

“The whole SUNY system needs to be reassessed when the smoke clears” from the pandemic, McMahon said. “The size of the system and the number of campuses is something that used to be talked about. And it should be talked about still.”

Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County, a member of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, noted SUNY’s enrollment was on the decline before the pandemic reached New York.

POPULATION DROP

He said he sees a connection between the enrollment drop and the decline in the upstate region’s population. More than one million people have moved away from New York over the past decade, according to government data.

“The enrollment isn’t there because families are moving away and taking their children with them,” said Salka, who attributed the population shift to high taxes and what he described as burdensome regulations for employers.

A national U.S. Census survey last month found that students from families earning less than $75,000 annually were far more likely to cancel college plans this year than students from families making more than $100,000 per year.

Another indication the pandemic has driven low-income students away from colleges came this week when the National College Attainment Network reported some 100,000 fewer high school students applied for college financial aid in 2020 than in 2019.

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

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