ALBANY, N.Y. -- As students at the State University of New York head back to class, they will be doing so with fewer classmates and higher tuition.
Enrollment at the 64 SUNY campuses has dropped 3.5 percent over the past five years, with the biggest dropoff at its 30 community colleges, a review of records by Gannett's Albany Bureau showed.
At the same time, tuition has increased 30 percent since 2010 to $6,470 a year for incoming freshmen this fall.
Compared to the national average, it's still a bargain: The average was $31,231 at private colleges and $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, according to the College Board.
"When I say $6,400, people say, 'A course?'" SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said.
SUNY officials, however, head into the new semester facing uncertainty over future tuition increases as a five-year agreement with the state Legislature to increase tuition $300 a year, called SUNY 2020, expires next year.
That comes as SUNY this year set a goal to increase the number of degrees awarded from 93,000 to 150,000 annually by 2020. They are also rapidly expanding online course offerings.
Zimpher said SUNY will ask for a five-year renewal of the $300 a-year tuition increase, but may try to limit the increases to less than $300 each year.
"We're still at the limit of $300. We don't think it has to go to $300 for every one of our sectors. So our primary theme will be: roll it over. We had a 2020 goal," she said.
The volatility of the economy has impacted SUNY enrollment -- illustrated by a 6 percent drop in community-college students since 2010. At Monroe Community College, enrollment fell 19 percent from a high of 19,000 in 2010 to 15,300 in 2014.
"Our enrollment rises and falls countercyclical to the economy," Anne Kress, president of MCC, said. "So when the economy takes a downturn, our enrollment goes way up because folks come to college because they either can't find employment or are looking for retraining."
SUNY, in fact, hit its peak enrollment of 471,184 students in the 2009-10 year in the midst of the recession as laid-off workers presumably went back to college. But the SUNY ranks fell to 454,839 students in 2014 in an improved economy.
Comparatively, the number of students in private schools in New York increased 2.9 percent: from 477,734 in 2009 to 491,852 in 2013, according the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which is based in Albany.
Over the last 10 years, though, SUNY campuses have had enrollment growth: up 8 percent overall and about 12 percent at its four university centers and community colleges.
"The nice part about SUNY is we have all that diversity and where our university centers might be on the edge of full capacity, we have comprehensives that want to grow because they know that's the secret to their future success," Zimpher said.
Enrollment strategies have varied by campus. SUNY Binghamton, one of the four state universities, increased enrollment 12 percent between 2010 and 2014, while it has been nearly flat at SUNY Purchase in Westchester County.
"Our numbers are pretty much based on where we want class sizes to be, the number of dorm spaces we have on campus, focusing resources on students and improving graduation rates," said Dennis Craig, SUNY Purchase's vice president of enrollment management.
SUNY New Paltz offered a similar sentiment. The Hudson Valley college has kept its enrollment at about 8,000 over the past decade, but it has dealt with a drop in graduate students, part of a trend nationally.
"This has provided capacity to increase undergraduate enrollments during the same period, to the point of capacity," L. David Eaton, the college's vice president for enrollment management, said in an email.
Don Nieman, the provost at SUNY Binghamton, said the increase in its enrollment in recent years has been part of the university's growth plan. Its expansion has been among the largest in the system in recent years.
For one, as one of the most prestigious SUNY schools, Binghamton gets overloaded with applications: It got 31,000 applications for 2,500 freshman slots last year.
Secondly, Binghamton has expanded its offerings, as well as a transfer program from students coming from different SUNY schools, particularly SUNY Broome, the local community college.
"We knew that we would be able to accommodate a significant number of additional students and maintain our quality," Nieman said.
Four-year colleges do not receive additional state aid for higher enrollment, so there isn't an incentive from the state to add more students. Community colleges do receive state and local aid based on full-time students, but that is a precarious situation, school leaders said.
Kress said MCC's enrollment dip was consistent with a decision in 2011 to install a registration deadline and tighten rules on students' ability to pay for college.
"As an open-access institution, our goal isn't so much around achieving high enrollment as it is making sure that our students can access the quality and affordability and opportunity that we have," Kress said.
In 2011, SUNY's Student Assembly supported the SUNY 2020 plan, saying it was important to have a "rational" tuition schedule.
But after five years of growth, the student group said it is concerned about ongoing increases. It is requesting that the SUNY Board of Trustees continue to receive permission to raise tuition by up $300 a year, but refrain from installing the maximum allowed and press the state for consistent aid.
"We're at a very different point compared to five years ago," said the group's president, Tom Mastro, a SUNY Binghamton senior.
In 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature agreed to the SUNY 2020 program. SUNY officials pressed for the initiative to give the system the independence to increase tuition without battling the Legislature every year over its request. Also, the increase was able to go the colleges while assuring that state aid, which totaled $3.4 billion this year for higher education, was not cut.
The program, SUNY said, has allowed campuses to hire more than 500 faculty and instructional staff and add over 100 new academic programs.
SUNY said that its current staff is 89,871, which is an 1,847-employee increase from five years ago -- about a 2 percent bump.
"What looks like growth was just catching up with a budget that had been in arrears and in deficit position for a long, long time," Zimpher said.
SUNY officials argued that prior to the tuition plan, the system lacked any continuity. Since 1963, 17 freshman classes never had to pay a tuition increase; 19 classes saw one tuition increase; eight saw two tuition increases; and one class in the early 1990s had three increases.
Zimpher said that while enrollment growth is important, so too is accommodating students' needs – particularly students coming out of high school with poor skills, something Zimpher has been vocal about correcting.
"We are going to continue to recruit heavily, but we also working on making sure students get what they need in high school so that we're not overburdening students with remedial courses," she said.