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Editorial: Farmingdale and the future

Farmingdale State College president W. Hubert Keen talks

Farmingdale State College president W. Hubert Keen talks about the the future. (April 12, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Changing with the times has been a hallmark of Farmingdale State College since its start 100 years ago. Now, as it begins its second century, the largest technology college in the State University of New York is on the verge of further transformation. As part of its 10 goals for the next 10 years, it hopes to begin offering master's degrees in fields tightly tied to the future of Long Island's economy.

That's exactly the right goal for this school, the oldest public college on Long Island. Through multiple changes of name and mission, it has been providing its students with salable skills for the changing regional job market. That market has experienced a hollowing out of middle-income jobs. Farmingdale's programs can help remedy that, by training students for the jobs that are there -- at a bargain tuition, instead of saddling them with crushing student debt, without giving them the skills to make a living.

When Gov. John Alden Dix signed the Harte-Thompson Act on April 15, 1912 -- the very day the Titanic sank -- the law created the New York State School of Agriculture on Long Island. The purpose of the new school was to train students from Long Island, the City of New York, and the Hudson Valley in agriculture. Not too many years ago, lambs, pigs, chickens and cows lived on the campus.

Now, though the college still offers horticultural courses, you won't find livestock. What you will find is students enrolled in such fields as manufacturing engineering technology, construction management technology and aviation.

Now, Farmingdale President W. Hubert Keen wants to establish master's degrees. Among them is one in engineering technology management. Farmingdale has talked to business leaders, examined studies and worked with the state's Department of Labor to get a good fix on what businesses need. The college already provides workers with engineering technology skills, but those businesses will need highly trained managers as well, and the master's degree will provide it, once the state Board of Regents approves.

If manufacturing is ever to make a comeback on Long Island -- it's down to about 8 to 9 percent of our economy, compared with 25 to 30 percent in the years when Grumman was churning out jet fighters -- Farmingdale will play a key role. A lot of the manufacturing we'll be doing will likely be in the high-tech arena, and the array of courses that the school has now -- and will be acquiring -- will fit that need.

Another of the college's key goals is to increase enrollment by almost 1,000 students, to 8,400, in the next 10 years. There was a time when Farmingdale, reacting to an edict from SUNY that it not duplicate the Island's two huge community colleges, drastically cut programs and lost enrollment. Its high was about 14,000 in 1976. By the 1990s, enrollment had shrunk to about 4,000. Expanding that enrollment -- and filling the seats with students working on degrees that will land them good jobs in our actual economy -- is a worthwhile goal.

As Farmingdale reshapes itself yet again, SUNY, the State Education Department and the Board of Regents should remain receptive to that admirable flexibility. Long Island's economy depends on it.