Fighting to Hold On to In-State Students

Hartwick, a private institution where three-quarters of enrollees are from New York State, seeks to counter impact of free public tuition.

November 27, 2017

As of the day before Thanksgiving, applications to Hartwick College were up 49 percent from a year ago.

In many ways, that shouldn't be the case. Hartwick is a private college in a small-town environment in an era when students are going urban, a liberal arts focus when many students are going preprofessional, and -- perhaps most challenging just now -- a home in New York State. State residents make up three-quarters of the college's students. And as of this year, they have the potential to be eligible for Excelsior Scholarships, the new program pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to provide free tuition to students at public colleges and universities in the state.

Hartwick's top overlap colleges include the State University of New York campuses at Albany, Binghamton and Geneseo -- all institutions with strong academic reputations and now, for most New York State residents, the prospect of no tuition. A report this month from the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents the state's private colleges, found that many New York private colleges with large in-state enrollments are seeing enrollment declines, especially of in-state students.

So why are Hartwick's applications up?

In an interview, Karen P. McGrath, vice president for enrollment management, described strategies that started to take shape in the admissions cycle that produced this year's freshman class, a cycle that was OK but not great for the college, and that have now been refined for the current admissions cycle.

First off, she said, she has considered Excelsior to have had a real influence in the last admissions cycle, even though the program was enacted only in late spring, well after the time when most prospective students and families would have investigated college options, even if they hadn't yet mailed in deposits. Many others in New York State have said that the real impact will be this year, but McGrath said she believes the Excelsior impact started as soon as Cuomo proposed it, in January. "Many assumed it was a done deal, and it disrupted the marketplace," McGrath said.

The class that enrolled this fall was about 400 students, a bit below Hartwick's ideal class size, which is 420-425. But the success in this class was keeping the share of the class from New York State steady at 75 percent. Yield remained steady at 14 percent.

"We've been in New York State for more than 220 years," McGrath said. "That's something we're very proud of. We're going to put a stake in the ground on that."

Hartwick is putting that stake in the ground with a new scholarship offer for New York State residents: $10,000 a year for four years for those from New York State who enroll full-time. There are no income limits. And Hartwick is noting that there is no requirement like one of the more controversial parts of Excelsior, a rule requiring graduates of SUNY and CUNY who receive the aid to work in the state for the same number of years as they receive the state aid.

Explaining the grant, McGrath said that "Hartwick has always had a commitment to the discussion about affordability, and we saw Excelsior confusing the market."

The current discount rate is 56 percent, and this reflects a reality, McGrath said, that Hartwick already awards aid to most students, including students who are from middle-class or (in a few cases) wealthy backgrounds.

Will the discount rate go up? Not necessarily, McGrath said. The awards are "first dollar" and come before other parts of the aid package. A New York student with similar finances in a past year might have ended up with the same aid package as one this year, she said.

The key impact is to shout out, early in the process, that there will be aid and that the $56,000 sticker price for tuition, fees and room and board won't be entirely the responsibility of students and their families.

"We're telling students they will have at least $10,000 toward their freshman year," she said. By removing a fear of having to pay everything, the college hopes to open up doors of discussion that will then lead to many students finding out they may end up with far more than $10,000 a year in aid.

"The goal is to drive applications, and then ultimately to yield applications to enrollment," she said.

Feedback from applicants and parents applying now suggests that the strategy is working, McGrath said. "I wanted to give my team one more message to deliver to guidance counselors, to families and to students."


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