Farmingdale State College, which turns 100 this spring, is celebrating a century of training the region's workforce even as the school endures cuts in state aid.
Despite the financial pressures, officials at Long Island's oldest public college say it has improved its academic standards and facilities, and is successfully transitioning to programs to prepare students for a 21st century workplace.
The college consistently scores high in national rankings of comparable schools. And a $185 million capital campaign is adding a Campus Center and a new building for the School of Business and renovating many facilities on the 380-acre campus on Route 110.
Two-year vocational-technical programs that dominated the school's offerings until the early 1990s have been replaced by four-year bachelor's degree programs in fields such as business and applied sciences, more rigorous and better suited to an economy demanding highly specialized skills. Enrollment, now 7,633, has risen in each of the last 11 years, and entering students have better high school grades and higher SAT scores than a decade ago, college officials said.
"If you're getting ready to invest dollars in higher education, I'd say we're a pretty good investment," said Farmingdale president Hubert Keen, an ecologist by training who became the college's eighth leader in 2007.
Even as the school grows more selective about the students it accepts, it cultivates area high school students through programs such as University in High School, which lets local students earn college credit, and Smart Scholars, which tutors students in high-need high schools.
Amityville schools Superintendent John Williams, whose district participates, said he hopes the programs open a corridor to college for his students. "It looks like they're going to bring very positive benefits," he said.
In a recent interview, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher hailed the school as one of the system's success stories. "It's a classic case of, 'If you build it, they will come,' " she said, adding the school has carved a "niche" in the region by offering technical training with the prestige of a bachelor's degree.
Strides made, despite cuts
But after $13.2 million in cuts in state funding to the school since the 2007-08 academic year, some worry about safeguarding the investment. The school's progress is "miraculous when you consider it's been sustained in spite of decades of cuts in state funding to public higher education," said Yolanda Pauze, a nonteaching professional in the school's art department and chapter president of United University Professions, the union representing faculty and staff at 29 State University of New York campuses.
The recent cuts, which Keen described as "huge," come against a backdrop of nearly $1.5 billion in funding cuts to the SUNY system in recent years. Farmingdale's operating budget for 2011-12 -- $59 million -- crept up marginally from $58.8 million the previous year, mostly due to mandated costs.
Cost-cutting measures include delaying purchases of new laboratory equipment and supplies and vehicles, even a switch to recycled copy paper. Months sometimes pass, Pauze said, before burned-out lightbulbs are replaced.
More serious, she said, is the pressure on faculty and staff salaries and a heavy reliance on part-time instructors who work for lower pay. Keen acknowledged the ratio of part-time to full-time instructors is higher than at most SUNY campuses, but said more full-time instructors would be hired.
While state money continues to provide a significant portion of the operating budget, he said, growing enrollment and SUNY-wide tuition increases provide some flexibility. The school aggressively courts area businesses and alumni to fund scholarships and research, and to grow its $4.5 million endowment.
At a school where half the students receive financial aid and 12 percent work full-time, some complain about rising tuition and activity fees, while others express pride at being enrolled.
A valued education
"You can get the same education here as at some fancy school where you're basically paying for the name," said Nicholas Damiano, 22, a senior business management major from Commack. He wants a career in talent management and works internships through the school with production and management firms. "You get here, you start pursuing something you love," he said.
Nancy Kumar, 21, a junior from Queens majoring in aviation management, said her classes don't have every aircraft instrument for live demonstration but they have most. The classes are "very realistic," she said. "This is how the industry operates." She recently completed an internship with JetBlue, arranged through the school.
A century ago, Farmingdale taught students like Damiano and Kumar the finer points of animal husbandry. In the next decade, Keen predicts, it will greatly expand its classes on information technology as jobs open in computer networking and database design.
The school "mirrors the development of Long Island," said Frank Cavaioli, a Farmingdale history professor whose history of the school is due to be published this summer by SUNY Press. "It's been here to meet the needs of society, from agriculture to high-tech."
Officials say the college will also try to satisfy students who want more than an education. The school recently made two high-level hires for student activities and is expanding its sports programs.
Amy Olenick, 21, a senior from Lake Ronkonkoma majoring in nursing, said she'd already gotten more than expected. "I learned a lot about myself over the past four years," she said.
In intimate classes of about 25, she said, she got to know her teachers and classmates. As president of the Student Nursing Association, she organized blood drives, visits to assisted living facilities, a fundraiser for a fellow student in a car accident, and even surprised herself. "I used to be really shy," she said, but at Farmingdale, "I found myself shedding an outer shell."
Key moments in the 100-year history of Farmingdale State College
1912: The school is founded as State Institute of Applied Agriculture for boys and girls in New York City and surrounding counties.
1947: The school becomes a partner in the State University of New York system.
1987: The agricultural program ends, a vestige of the region's rural past in what has become a largely high-tech, service-based economy.
1990: SUNY trustees give the go-ahead for the school to become a four-year college, signaling a new emphasis on applied sciences and technology.
Sources: Frank Cavaioli, Farmingdale State College