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SUNY's chancellor promotes state community colleges amid a nationwide dip in higher education enrollment

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras meets with Nassau County Community College students and its president, Jermaine Williams, during a recent visit to Long Island.
Shay Gauthier
SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras at Stony Brook University on Sept. 24, 2020.

Fewer high school students have enrolled in New York’s public colleges this fall, following a similar decline at education institutions across the U.S. But a bright spot is that SUNY research universities are weathering the pandemic.

This fall's national undergraduate enrollment is more than 3% lower than last fall. In New York, enrollment is down over 3.5%.

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said the state can strengthen those numbers by promoting community college and other post-high school opportunities.

“I think what we're trying to do is connect our community colleges to workforce opportunities,” Malatras said during a recent visit to Suffolk County Community College, where overall enrollment this fall was 8% lower than it was a year ago. “The fact is 70% of all new jobs being created need some sort of post secondary education, not simply a bachelor's degree, but an associate's degree or certificate.”

He said these two-year programs can prepare students for four-year colleges at research institutions, including Stony Brook University.

“The question is, how do we make it more accessible for our students,” he said.

Bucking the downward trend, SUNY research institutions weathered an enrollment drop of less than 1% during the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, college enrollment has been trending downward since around 2012, but the pandemic worsened the decline.

SUNY research colleges actually grew 12% over the last decade. Enrollment at Stony Brook University grew nearly 13% since 2011. This fall, the college has about 60 fewer students, or less than 0.5% of students

SUNY has refocused student needs during the pandemic to address housing, food, economic insecurities, as well as mental health and wellness, he said.

Malatras said community colleges also break barriers to education for all students. He said he rejects terms like “traditional versus nontraditional students” because state colleges have programs for students of all ages.

“College education also is this lifelong learning experience,” he said.

Older students might be enrolling for a specific training program or certificate. They might have returned to college for a change of career or find their way after being fired or furloughed during the pandemic, he said.

“What's good about our community college system is that you are the direct community input for the local economy in that you can meet that workforce need,” Malatras said.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.