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Survival strategies of LI's private colleges

Six four-year, not-for-profit institutions are focusing on student recruitment, programs geared toward career opportunities, and assistance for students and families on the intricacies of financial aid.

Students at Molloy College in Rockville Centre study

Students at Molloy College in Rockville Centre study for final exams on Dec. 13. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

With costs rising, populations in the Northeast dropping and competition increasing, private colleges and universities across Long Island and New York State are fighting for students.

Overall enrollment at six major private institutions on the Island — Adelphi, Hofstra and Long Island universities, Molloy and St. Joseph's colleges, and New York Institute of Technology — declined nearly 9 percent during a recent five-year period, from 57,763 students in fall 2012 to 52,683 in fall 2017, according to a Newsday analysis of the most recent data provided to the state Education Department.

Enrollment trends varied from school to school, with some dropping, others holding steady and some seeing increases. LIU had the largest decrease, as enrollment went down 22 percent, from 20,621 in 2012 to 16,079 in 2017, according to the data. Molloy saw the largest increase, rising by more than 11 percent, from 4,482 students in 2012 to 4,980 in 2017.

Total enrollment at 6 Long Island private colleges

The not-for-profit schools, which rely largely on tuition dollars, have worked to up their game by developing a variety of strategies to rival their publicly funded counterparts and each other, and reaching outside traditional catchment areas for students.

Adelphi embarked on an aggressive national marketing campaign. St. Joseph’s added more graduate and continuing education programs. Hofstra has been drawing students with its medical school, international degree programs and Division I athletic teams. LIU placed a 2 percent cap on tuition increases. NYIT has focused on market trends to create new programs. And Molloy has been promoting its value-centered mission.

"Our schools are always trying to respond to the market," said Mary Beth Labate, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, an Albany-based association of more than 100 colleges and universities across the state. "Gone are the days where a college says, 'Here’s what we’re offering, come in.' ”

The cost of attending a private college or university can be a drawback in attracting students. Nationally, the average cost of tuition and fees for undergraduates at a private four-year school is $35,830, according to 2018-19 data from College Board, the Manhattan-based nonprofit that administers the SAT admissions exam and Advanced Placement courses. At public four-year institutions, the average cost of tuition and fees is $10,230 for in-state students and $26,290 for out-of-state students.

Tuition at the Island’s six major private schools this academic year for full-time undergraduates taking 12 to 17 credits per semester ranges from $30,270 at Molloy to $44,640 at Hofstra. Hofstra also offers a voluntary four-year fixed rate of $48,100.

Room and board significantly increases the total cost. That national average is $12,680 at private institutions and $11,140 at public schools, according to College Board.

Long Island colleges, like many statewide and nationally, weathered the Great Recession by bringing in nontraditional students — that is, those who did not come directly from high school. Recession-era enrollments peaked around 2012, but since have declined in most states even as the economy rebounded, said Doug Shapiro, executive research director for the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit private research organization.

At the same time, the "Baby Boom Echo" generation — children of Baby Boomers, the generation born from 1946 to 1964 — largely has filtered through the education system. 

The number of high school students will continue to drop because of population declines, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. In the Northeast, the number of high school graduates is expected to decrease by about 11 percent by 2030, going from 639,000 graduates in 2013 to 567,000, according to a 2016 report from the commission that used the most recent federal education data available.

New York State’s population is declining faster than any state, according to data released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau.

And the number of new international students is decreasing because of the rising cost of higher education in the United States, increased global competition and changes in foreign policy, according to the latest Open Doors report released in November by the Institute of International Education.

“Colleges will have to keep looking harder to find the typical students that they used to enroll,” Shapiro said.

However, in contrast to trends in the Northeast, federal data show that enrollment nationally at private not-for-profits, particularly those offering four-year degrees, has steadily increased since 2005, said Paul Hassen, director of communications and marketing for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, whose members include 967 institutions, as well as statewide groups such as CICU.

“Many of the private nonprofits, their presidents would tell you that they offer smaller classes, more individualized learning opportunities, a legacy of ensuring that students graduate in four years, and thereby actually a lower cost than other options,” he said.

Private colleges must be more strategic in how they attract students moving forward, higher education experts said. Here are five ways the Island’s private colleges said they are answering the challenge.

Diversifying enrollment

Most of the schools on the Island are slightly shielded from population declines in the rest of the state because of their proximity to the New York City metro market. Several have campuses in the city, and the Catholic colleges also have built-in feeders from local parochial schools.

As other colleges statewide and from outside the state more aggressively recruit in the city, some institutions on the Island are shifting their enrollment strategies.

There are several ways to build enrollment: through traditional freshman and transfer students, graduate students, and nontraditional students, Mollloy President  Drew Bogner said. The approximately 4,900-student Catholic school based in Rockville Centre made a decision to invest in growing freshman and graduate students, he said. Since 2008, the college’s graduate enrollment is up 53 percent, and this fall Molloy welcomed its largest freshman class of 598 students, officials said.

St. Joseph’s, which caters to a commuter population, has been increasing its credential and graduate degree programs, said Gigi Lamens, the college’s vice president for enrollment management. The traditionally Catholic college has added online and weekend programs, and increased flexibility in its course schedule.

The 5,100-plus student school has a large transfer population, primarily from Suffolk County Community College, so it works to ensure students' credits move easily. And the college has increased services for veterans, a large population on the Island, Lamens said.

Many institutions also are practicing “right-sizing,” Hassen said, meaning they budget how many faculty and staff are needed to serve a certain number of students, and then they know how many students they need to enroll each year to operate efficiently.

Brookville-based LIU is focused on attracting high-achieving students who are more likely to graduate on time, chief financial officer Christopher Fevola said. The goal is to keep enrollment in existing programs at the levels they are now and find growth in new, strategic programs aimed at market needs, such as health sciences, he said.

Enrollment in 2013 was higher than it is now, but on average it took students longer to graduate, Fevola said. " . . . What we’ve found is it’s easier to attract and retain a higher-quality student than to keep trying to find new ones," he said.

As a result, retention rates and student outcomes are on the rise, Fevola said.

Adding new programs

Many institutions are using unique and high-demand programs to attract students.

“The fact that our schools are governed by boards of directors and not by a larger government entity probably allows us to be a little bit more nimble and move a little bit more quickly to make sure that we are offering the most relevant coursework for potential students,” Labate said.

Since the recession, Hofstra has focused on diversifying, adding a medical school, a school of health professions and human services, a school of engineering and applied science, and a school of graduate nursing.

“We watch the Department of Labor statistics and we watch where the careers of the futures are,” said Jessica Eads, university vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions. Many faculty and administrators at the 11,000-student university serve on advisory boards and panels, providing further industry insight, she said.

NYIT, which has its main campuses in Old Westbury and Manhattan, uses a data-heavy approach, focusing on market trends and creating programs to align with those trends. For example, the school recently started a master’s degree in data science and bioengineering, said Nada Marie Anid, vice president for strategic communications and external affairs and interim vice president for enrollment management.

“We look at and analyze the data constantly, and we adopt our tactics to the trends we’re seeing by the month,” she said. The approach extends to the way the 7,400-student institution budgets, finding efficiencies where possible, and advises students about their academics and educational financing.

“We were founded on this infusion of technology in everything that we do. Being that it’s in our core, it’s helping us,” Anid said. “And this entrepreneurial spirit that we were founded on is helping us move faster.” 

Boosting aid, curbing costs

Private institutions typically have a higher sticker price than public colleges but often provide their own financial aid through endowments and other scholarship funds.

With student debt and the cost of college at the forefront in national discussions on higher education affordability, private colleges have gotten better at marketing their net price — taking aid into account — as opposed to the sticker price, Shapiro said. 

Overall, New York's private colleges provided $5.7 billion in financial aid to their students in 2018, according to a CICU report released this month. The average net price that students pay per year at private institutions statewide is $26,535, including tuition, room and board, the report said.

St. Joseph's in Patchogue has ramped up its outreach on the financial front, providing a one-on-one counselor to guide students and their parents through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to maximize financial aid opportunities, Lamens said. With the help of its endowment, the college has increased both merit- and need-based scholarships, she said.

The greatest impact the recession had was the loss of home equity, which many families were counting on as a source of funding for their children’s education, Hassen said. They instead have turned to loans, making them more cautious about racking up debt.

As a result, “Both public and private institutions are working very hard to either raise scholarship dollars or forgo tuition in the form of reducing tuition for students to make it more affordable for them to go,” he said.

After a decade of tuition hikes averaging 5 percent, LIU recognized that its increases were outpacing growth in federal and state aid, Fevola said. The university in 2016 began capping increases at 2 percent or less annually through 2020.

Starting last year, private colleges had added competition from the state’s Excelsior Scholarship, which covers the cost of in-state tuition for eligible students attending the state's public colleges. Fevola said Excelsior has affected the number of transfer students and those attending LIU’s Brooklyn campus, drawing prospective students to public schools in New York City.

The university is one of about 30 statewide that chose to participate in the state’s private-school scholarship program, the Enhanced Tuition Award, through which the state matches dollars provided by the school toward students’ tuition costs. The exact impact of the award is unclear, but it has allowed the university to provide more aid to students, Fevola said.

Advertising and outreach

Institutions have been working to boost their outreach to students and advertising.

Adelphi, with 8,100-plus students on its Garden City campus, is personalizing its admissions process, said Stephanie Espina, director of freshman admissions and president-elect of the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling.

As part of the strategy for boosting enrollment, counselors are overseeing applications and engaging with students and parents, she said. “We want to make sure that this daunting college application process does have a very human element to it.”

The university also is working to get its story out and is aggressively recruiting nationally, Espina said. Adelphi had been recruiting in California, Florida and Texas and recently added states such as Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota and Missouri. Making a name nationally will bring in students from different backgrounds, helping to diversify classes and transform the experience on campus, she said.

Hofstra already has a national brand, with approximately half of its undergraduates from outside New York, Eads said. This presence has helped the university weather the tough times, she said.

The Hempstead-based university in recent years has built up its digital marketing presence, posting videos of students telling their stories and experiences on social media, said Melissa Connolly, Hofstra vice president for university relations.

The school also is using the physical campus as much as possible when classes are not in session, she said, bringing in more money and also allowing high school students the chance to see the campus while participating in camps and other programs.

Sticking to their mission

One of the main strategies for private colleges is sharing what makes them unique.

Across New York, many private not-for-profit schools were created more than 100 years ago with “a very specific mission in mind, and they have not really veered from that mission,” Labate said.

For many, that mission includes keeping class sizes small and offering individualized education.

Hofstra works to provide students with a global experience, research and study abroad opportunities, as well as entrepreneurial and five-year dual degree programs, Eads said. Its business school partners with a school in China, so students graduate with a local degree and one from China.

Molloy offers a Catholic education with a focus on leadership, Bogner said. “We know that the students that come to Molloy, they want to make a difference in the world."

The college has worked to increase internship opportunities, providing real-world experiences, as well as civic-minded community service activities.

“This generation, they want to be valued as individuals, and we do that,” Bogner said. “Our whole way of educating really revolves around meeting the individual where they are and taking them to another level.”

Tuition at a glance

Here is the cost of full-time undergraduate tuition at six private not-for-profit institutions on Long Island for the 2018-19 school year. The universities and colleges typically offer scholarships and grants, so a school's tuition sticker price may vary from students' net cost.

Adelphi : $36,920        

Hofstra: $44,640/$48,100*

LIU: $35,737

Molloy: $30,270

NYIT: $35,585

St. Joseph’s: $27,230

*Voluntary four-year, locked-in rate

Source: School websites

Private colleges' economic effect

The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, in a December report, analyzed the impact of not-for-profit private colleges and universities on the region and state. The commission, based in Albany, represents 100-plus institutions in New York.

The data includes 12 campuses on Long Island, including Touro College, Webb Institute and the Watson School of Biological Sciences, a graduate school at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

  • Not-for-profit private campuses generate $88.8 billion in economic impact statewide, including $3.5 billion on Long Island.
  • They enroll 489,400 students statewide, 52,900 of whom attend Long Island schools.
  • The institutions support 415,600 jobs statewide, 19,200 of which are on the Island.
  • These schools spend more than $2.2 billion in construction statewide, of which $71 million is spent on the Island.

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