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Hunting Out West

August 12, 2010

The strategy may not be new, but few expected it to come out of Cobleskill, N.Y.

As an economic downturn forces California’s public universities to cut enrollment, the State University of New York at Cobleskill is unabashedly gunning for disenchanted students there who may now be considering other options. Out-of-state recruitment is common among many colleges and universities, but for SUNY Cobleskill – a rural upstate campus of just 2,600 students – an advertising campaign designed to lure Californians is a marked strategic shift, suggesting institutions of varied size and name recognition are poised to make inroads in the troubled Golden State.

Cobleskill’s efforts began last fall with something of a media blitz. The campus ran a series of advertisements in the newspapers of California community colleges with programs similar to those of Cobleskill. In the spring, officials followed up that campaign with another round of ads, promoting the campus' agricultural bent under the headline “Got College? We Do!”

Apart from its co-opting of the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign, there was something else painfully obvious about Cobleskill’s ads: The campaign was suggesting students have good reason to be dissatisfied with options in a state long associated with the nation’s premier public system of higher education.

“It would have been a nonviable strategy five years ago, because there was plenty of room at the inn in California," said Donald Zingale, president of Cobleskill.

Zingale is no stranger to California. While he may be a New York native, he built his academic career out West. Zingale came to Cobleskill from California State University’s Maritime Academy, and previously held administrative posts at three other California State University campuses in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

“It’s only natural that I continue to follow trends in higher education in my state of origin, and of course what I find out is California community colleges are this year about to graduate a number of well-prepared students, quite a few of them from the ag area, who will not find slots in the Cal State system or the UC system,” Zingale said. “Here are kids who are wanting for a college education to transfer, and we have a number of baccalaureate programs that are well-suited to certain kinds of students.”

That's not to say SUNY doesn't have its own problems. Lawmakers just cut $210 million from the system's budget, and they rejected legislation that would have given the university greater tuition flexibility. Even so, Cobleskill sees potential in California, where public institutions have indeed cut enrollment. California State University, which closed admission for the last spring term, has curtailed enrollment by about 20,000 students. More hopeful budget predictions have officials suggesting those cuts could be reversed by this coming spring, but last spring's admissions closure was particularly hard on community college students, who often transfer at that time. The University of California has also reduced enrollment by 3,800 students across the system since 2009, although the university has increased its admission of community college students by 1,000 students in that same time frame.

Photo: SUNY Cobleskill

An advertisement promoting SUNY Cobleskill ran in more than 60 California community college newspapers in fall 2009 and spring 2010. The campus aims to recruit students who may be frustrated about shrinking offerings in California.

There is no doubt that California students, particularly in heavily enrolled majors, are fighting harder for seats at their top-choice institutions, and “that’s a huge opportunity for a school like us,” said Chris Tacea, Cobleskill’s director of admissions. Admittedly, however, California’s struggles have yet to translate into a surge of students for Cobleskill. In the wake of this first push, only one California student has accepted Cobleskill’s invitation. But compared to a norm of zero, it's easy to see why Cobleskill officials are encouraged.

While the campaign has yet to produce much in the way of tangible results, it’s already paid for itself, Zingale said. Cobleskill spent $4,000 on its advertisements, and “all you need is one student to enroll and you’ve literally paid for the entire project,” he said.

Nonresident tuition is $12,870 at Cobleskill – more than double the $5,070 New Yorkers pay. That kind of out-of-state price tag will likely be a deterrent for a lot of Californians, even if they're frustrated with shrinking offerings in their home state.

"California’s public colleges and universities remain among the most affordable in the country," Terri Carbaugh, spokeswoman for California Community Colleges, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. "California places a high priority on investing in human capital. Even though they are often courted by out-of-state universities, more likely than not, our students remain in state."

For those who may leave, however, Carbaugh noted that it serves the national agenda for greater college completion rates -- even if it's not what California education officials would prefer.

"If a California student transfers to an out of state university, it is not great news for the California economy, but likewise it is not terrible news for our nation's economy," she wrote. "We are all facing these challenging times together whether you live in California, Texas, New York or Mississippi."

Unlike some other states, New York does not set a cap on the number of nonresidents a public university can admit -- and many politicians there have said they would actually like to see more out-of-state students. Moreover, New York's funding model arguably creates an incentive for at least some of an institution’s students to be from elsewhere. Cobleskill receives a state subsidy (along with tuition) for every full-time equivalent (FTE) student up to a total enrollment of 2,400, but there’s no subsidy for the approximately 200 other students the campus typically enrolls in a given year. It therefore makes economic sense for most of the students over the 2,400 threshold to be out-of-staters or international students who bring in additional revenue to offset the lack of subsidy, Zingale said.

“We’ll have fulfilled our commitment to the state of New York, and the other students will be self-supporting in that they are from other states,” he said.

Zingale argued that diversifying the student body is another good reason for seeking nonresidents, insisting that “the money is the icing on the cake.” That’s a common argument in public higher education, but it’s often viewed as more of a political justification than an honestly held position. It was telling, for instance, that a crowd gathered recently for the annual meeting of the National Association of Colleges and University Business Officers (NACUBO) in San Francisco laughed heartily when Zingale spoke publicly about Cobleskill’s California campaign. Indeed, a panelist for the discussion mockingly stated that nonresidents “really add to the enrichment” of the learning environment. That drew even bigger laughs.

“The chucklers probably came from [college officials in] large metropolitan areas,” Zingale said. “Probably who wasn’t chuckling were the campuses in [less diverse] small rural areas like us.”

Beyond the advertising campaign, Cobleskill is playing up its niche with trips to California. Campus officials were in Fresno, Calif., for instance, at a meeting of the National FFA Organization, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America. The meeting draws students who are interested in agriculture, and Cobleskill expects its programs to appeal to them.

Asked if he saw anything Machiavellian about targeting a state in trouble, Zingale suggested he might actually be doing California a favor.

"A lot of those students are going to go back to California, and California will benefit from their increased tax base at no cost to the state of California because we're educating them," he said.

And if they don't?

"In that case, maybe we did rip off California," he said. "But the kid chose to stay here."

 

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