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View of Clarkson University campus in Schenectady

Clarkson University is transferring 16 graduate teacher education programs it offered at its Capital Region Campus in Schenectady to nearby Siena College.

Clarkson University

As the pool of potential college students continues to shrink, some institutions are trying to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive market by shifting or refining their academic focus.

That mindset is part of what led Clarkson University, which is focused on building its reputation in STEM disciplines, to transfer 16 teacher education graduate programs to Siena College in a deal both institutions expect to be finalized in June, pending approval from the New York State Education Department.

“We made a pivotal decision to refine our identity and align ourselves to our founding and ongoing historical technological mission,” Marc Christensen, Clarkson’s president said in a news release last week. “As we strategically focused, we decided to find a new home for those programs at an institution that could leverage a ready pipeline of undergraduate students interested in K-12 education careers and create opportunities to expand offerings that will address the enormous demand for teachers in New York state and across the nation.”

New York state, which requires all teachers to earn a master’s degree within five years of obtaining their teaching license, will need approximately 180,000 new teachers over the next decade to meet workforce needs, according to data from Governor Kathy Hochul’s office. Between 2009 and 2019, enrollment in the state’s teacher education programs fell by 53 percent, according to the latest data available from New York State United Teachers.

The pandemic and its aftermath only worsened the waning interest in the profession. Between 2018 and 2023, national enrollment in education graduate programs declined by 7 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Clarkson has not been exempt from that trend. Before the pandemic, its master of arts in teaching program graduated as many as 60 candidates a year. Now, it’s averaging around 35, according to Catherine Snyder, director of the program at Clarkson.

And New York has already lost other teacher pipelines after the recent closures of the College of St. Rose and Cazenovia College. (This paragraph was revised to correct a reference to SUNY Potsdam that implied the university was reducing its overall teacher education offerings. The following two paragraphs were added to provide additional context.)

Last summer, administrators at the State University of New York at Potsdam decided to discontinue two education programs, including an undergraduate degree program in computer science education and a graduate advanced certificate program in college teaching. Potsdam officials say those two programs had little to no enrollment but noted that teacher education is still a growth area for the university.

“While these two programs were not as popular as our faculty had hoped that they would be, at the same time, we have launched multiple other education programs over the past few years,” including seven degree and two certificate programs, Alexandra Jacobs Wilke, Potsdam’s director of public relations, said in an email. “Enrollment is up across all of our educational programs, and we are hiring new faculty for this growth area.”

Still, teacher education programs in the region are clearly struggling.

“The challenge is that teacher education programs aren’t typically revenue generating,” Snyder said, adding that while graduates often make loyal alumni, they’re unlikely to become deep-pocketed donors. “If a school or president or strategic plan is focusing on the revenue more than the contributions to the community, then teacher education is one of those programs that might get canceled.”

Clarkson, whose overall enrollment fell from 4,697 students to 4,371 in the past three years, acquired the teacher education programs alongside multiple other programs from Union Graduate College, which Clarkson merged with in 2016. Since then, the education programs have operated out of Clarkson’s Capital Region Campus in Schenectady, which is about three-and-a-half hours away from its main campus in Potsdam.

‘Couldn’t Lose Those Programs’

Clarkson originally considered sunsetting its graduate teacher education programs, but news of that possibility panicked the local K-12 education community.

“My phone was ringing off the hook from superintendents, assistant superintendents and department chairs telling me they couldn’t lose those programs because it’s where they go to get all of their high school teachers,” Snyder said. “When I started thinking about it, I thought ‘We’ve been in this situation before.’”

Snyder, who was working for Union when the program transferred to Clarkson, thought finding yet another home for the programs would be a better solution than shutting it down altogether.

She got the backing of Clarkson and Siena College, a Franciscan liberal arts institution near Albany, NY, about 30 minutes from Clarkson’s Schenectady campus, emerged as the best fit to take on the teaching programs.

“We have been talking about trying to expand (our teacher education programs) to include some master’s programs,” said Margaret Madden, provost and senior vice president of Siena College. She noted that Clarkson’s programs “are well-established, have a great alumni network with many employed in the school districts around the region. It’s a real opportunity for us to grow in a way we’d been planning to anyway.”

Administrators at Clarkson and Siena are working with the state and accrediting agencies to complete the transfer by this summer, a move officials at both institutions said the regulatory bodies have supported so far.

While adding existing graduate programs will save Siena the time it typically takes to start up and market an entirely new program, Madden said that “Any time you integrate a new division, you have to worry about the culture and people getting used to a new set of policies.”

The eight full-time faculty and staff running Clarkson’s teaching programs and the roughly 100 students enrolled are expected to make the move to Siena.

“It’s not a huge difference for the students—we’re still in the same region and the students aren’t residential students,” Madden said, adding that many of Siena’s undergraduate education majors have continued their graduate education at Clarkson’s program. “The fact that Clarkson is a known quantity and people are certain about the quality of both programs and the faculty that certainly helps.”

Just as Clarkson saw rehoming the programs as conducive to its focus on STEM, Madden said acquiring them is also part of a plan to stabilize Siena’s long-term future.

Although the college’s combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment has grown since the pandemic—from 3,182 in fall 2019 to 3,483 in fall 2023—administrators are not ignoring the looming demographic cliff and the growing public perception that college isn’t worth the cost.

“We recognize that we need to make sure our programs are diverse enough so they can weather ups and downs in interest and populations,” Madden said. “Having more master’s programs makes us not as dependent on the undergraduate programs. It’s a way to generate another kind of revenue.”

While experts aren’t exactly sure how frequently colleges and universities transfer academic programs to peer institutions, some suspect it’s an approach more institutions may turn to in an era of college consolidations, mergers and closures.

“As colleges are rightsizing themselves, they’re looking at what is at the core of who they are,” said Kevin Cavanagh, a consultant for Higher Ed Consolidation Solutions who also helped with Montclair University’s merger with Bloomfield College last year. “At the other end of the spectrum, colleges are hopefully looking opportunistically at how they grow and meet the needs of new populations of students.”

Cavanagh said the deal between Siena and Clarkson offers some insight on how that can work.

“Both schools have just strengthened themselves, and at the same time there’s been hopefully little impact on the students, staff and faculty in those programs,” he said. “This is a model for how colleges and universities can work together in sustaining and strengthening themselves.”

Brian Prescott, president at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said if Siena’s absorption of Clarkson’s teaching graduate programs goes as smoothly as expected, there’s no obvious downside.

“Since they occupy similar geography, it’s lowering the temperature on the competition (for students) that may be happening at least between those institutions in a place that’s already pretty saturated with institutions,” he said. “Each becomes a little more specialized as an institution. You can tell a more coherent story about what kind of institution you are if you have a clear brand around what programs you’re offering.”

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