How a Regional Public University Reversed Enrollment Decline (and It's Not Free Tuition)

SUNY Fredonia had been suffering year after year of declines. And while the state's new scholarship may be helping, officials attribute major gains to new policies and new strategies.

August 28, 2017
 
Orientation at Fredonia

For many regional public universities in regions with declining populations and economies that aren't booming, maintaining enrollment is a challenge. Failing to do so is dangerous. While people don't talk about public universities as being tuition dependent, most are -- through a combination of their reliance on tuition revenue and state funding formulas that are based on enrollment.

The State University of New York at Fredonia is just such a public university. While SUNY's acclaimed research universities capture attention (and swarms of applicants), Fredonia has been shrinking for years. It is located between Buffalo and Erie, Pa., near Lake Erie, in a part of the state that is about as far from Manhattan (geographically and economically) as is possible.

So that's what makes this year's freshman class at Fredonia notable. The class is nearly 25 percent larger than last year's, and the second largest in Fredonia's history. The immediate guess about the turnaround might be New York State's new scholarships that offer free tuition at public colleges for most residents.  But it turns out that only a small share of Fredonia's new class obtained those scholarships. The extra aid helped, officials said, and may help more in years ahead, but they credit other changes as more significant. At the same time, Fredonia's success may be crucial to the longterm goals of New York State's new scholarship program, which doesn't guarantee admission anywhere.

Fredonia is among the SUNY campuses that don't have strong name recognition outside their regions, but which have something else: capacity. Fredonia was ready to enroll all of its new students, and would be happy to keep the freshman class at that level. It will be enrollment trends at the Fredonias of the state (along with online programs) that will determine whether New York State ends up with a larger share of its population as degree holders.

So how did Fredonia turn things around?

Virginia Horvath, the president, says the university worked with consultants from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who came to the campus and met with more than 100 employees to help develop a plan, which was fully in place a year ago. She said it was important to grow enrollment without letting standards drop. The average high-school grade (on a 100 point scale that Fredonia uses) is 89.5, the same as recent years when far fewer enrolled.

The key, she said, was to focus on "what is the experience for an applicant?"

First, that meant reaching students -- both near and far.

"We weren't paying enough attention to our primary market," in Western New York, said Dan Trumata, associate vice president for enrollment services. So in Western New York, Fredonia made a determination to communicate with every high school, those with a graduating class of 30, not just those with hundreds of seniors.

At the same time, he said, Fredonia opted to use SUNY resources it hadn't in the past. SUNY has a welcome center in New York City. For the first time, Fredonia officials used the site to do outreach to New York City and Long Island students. While most of the gains this year are from Western New York, there are also more students coming from the New York City metro area. Fredonia has also started a policy (likely to have an impact in the future, not this year) of doing outreach to potential students two or three years before they might enroll, instead of focusing just on high school seniors.

Beyond outreach, Fredonia also changed policies, again with the applicant in mind.

In the past, it took Fredonia an average of 28 days to respond to a completed application. This year, that number came down to five days. Cedric Howard, vice president for enrollment and student services, said that when students finish an application, they want to know if they will get in. Fredonia still does the same review it did in prior years, but makes sure to do so promptly, he said.

In addition, the university committed to providing information on eligibility for aid at the same time applicants were admitted. All of this was designed for an applicant who had gotten excited about Fredonia to commit and enroll.

The result: 1,164 first-year students. That's not only up nearly 25 percent from last year's 934 but exceeds the university's goal for this year, of 1,000.

The Impact of Free Tuition?

So what about the Excelsior Scholarship, the new program -- pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo -- to provide free tuition to most who enroll full-time at SUNY and the City University of New York?

Horvath said the aid is welcome. This academic year, 337 undergraduates at Fredonia have the awards. Of that total, 146 are freshmen.

By the time the New York Legislature approved the program, admissions offers had been made and students were about to indicate where they would enroll. While Horvath said she assumes that the program may have been an extra incentive for some freshmen, she noted that most students and families had gone through the entire college planning process without expecting this aid to come through for next year.

In addition, Fredonia tracked a range of indicators throughout the year -- campus contacts by prospective students, applications and so forth. And everything ran 20 percent or more above last year's total throughout the year. That's why she doesn't think Excelsior was a big factor this year.

But next year, with Excelsior's opportunities as part of the equation throughout the admissions cycle, along with the new strategies in place at Fredonia, Horvath is hopeful of continuing to see a freshman class as large as the one this year.

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