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Three students lean on a railing with the SUNY Plattsburgh campus in the background.

SUNY Plattsburgh’s campus will soon be home to Clinton Community College, as well.

SUNY Plattsburgh

A community college and a university in the State University of New York system have announced plans to integrate their neighboring campuses. Clinton Community College plans to relocate to nearby SUNY Plattsburgh by the 2025–26 academic year.

John Kowal, president of Clinton Community College, wrote in a statement Wednesday that the move was prompted by years of enrollment declines and other financial pressures at the college.

Enrollment at the two-year college fell from a peak of 2,249 students in 2012 to 994 students in 2022–23, Kowal told Inside Higher Ed. The drop has led to dwindling tuition revenues and a budget shortfall of $850,000. Meanwhile, the number of traditional-age students in rural New York is falling, and institutional expenses have risen because of inflation.

Although total enrollment at Clinton increased to 1,015 students in fall 2023, much of the boost is from high school students taking dual-enrollment courses rather than full-time students. First-year full-time student enrollment fell 7.1 percent, according to a frequently asked questions page about the move on the college’s website.

“This really emerged as a strategy for reducing the cost of operations and, secondarily, to provide students some of the amenities at a university that we don’t have at our current location,” Kowal said.

The college has also been subject to a warning status by its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, since summer 2022, in part because of having insufficient “resources to fulfill its mission and goals and to support its educational purposes and programs,” according to a June 2023 notification from the accreditor. The college has a report on its progress due to Middle States later this month.

Kowal said the news of the planned relocation was met with mixed reactions by faculty and staff members at a meeting held Wednesday. Some were excited about the move and its implications for the future of the college, while others were taken aback and feared for their jobs. (College leaders have yet to decide whether the move will necessitate layoffs in addition to maintenance staff.)

But “there is an undertone of concern about losing accreditation if we were not going to take this bold move,” he said. “And the numbers clearly show that our budget is in serious jeopardy if we don’t either seriously cut costs or increase revenues or both.” He estimated that cutting maintenance personnel and expenses alone will save the college at least $1.2 million per year.

He noted that the two institutions plan to hash out the details of a shared services agreement to save costs and give Clinton students access to resources at SUNY Plattsburgh that they don’t currently have, including campus housing and meal plans.

He emphasized, however, that the move is not a merger.

“We’ll have our own buildings, our own signs … We are our own entity,” he said of Clinton Community College. “We have our own funding structure, governance structure, programs. Everything from that perspective stays the same. It’s just that we’re doing it in another location.”

Alex Enyedi, president of SUNY Plattsburgh, said in an email to the university’s students and employees that Clinton’s academic operations could fully move to the university as early as next year, though other aspects of the partnership could begin sooner. Leaders of the two institutions will start meeting to discuss the arrangement in detail this semester.

He emphasized that the university is being “called on to help” the community college and is itself financially strong.

“It is important to note that while we face many of the same macro-challenges as some of our peer institutions, we are not at risk in the same way as some and not at the same crossroads,” Enyedi said. “In fact, it is our sound financial position, clear direction and future focus that even lets SUNY, Clinton Community College, and the county look to us for assistance in this way. It is a validation of our path.”

However, SUNY system data do show that enrollment at SUNY Plattsburgh has fallen over the last decade. The university enrolled 4,474 students in 2022, compared to 6,167 students in 2012.

“Our focus will be to make any arrangement advantageous to both institutions and ensure there is no detrimental financial impact on our campus,” Enyedi said in the email to his campus.

A Systemwide and National Challenge

The SUNY system has 64 campuses across the Empire State. And Clinton Community College and SUNY Plattsburgh aren’t alone in having enrollment challenges.

Systemwide, total enrollment fell from 461,816 students in 2012 to 363,312 in 2022, a loss of more than 100,000 students, according to system data. Governor Kathy Hochul recently announced a systemwide enrollment increase of 1.2 percent, up to 367,542 students from fall 2022 to fall 2023, a cause for celebration among state lawmakers and system leaders after a decade of declines.

But the system arguably isn’t out of the woods. New York, like other states, is on the cusp of a demographic cliff that will lead to a significant decline in the number of traditional-age students over the coming decades.

Kowal highlighted in his public statement that several institutions in the state have struggled with similar enrollment and financial challenges and have also had to make various kinds of drastic shifts. The College of Saint Rose, a private university in Albany, recently announced its impending closure, and SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Fredonia plan to extensively cut academic programs.

Multiple attempts have been made within the system over the years to consolidate operations and share services across SUNY campuses.

“I think SUNY has led the way in sharing services, whether that be through joint technology platforms, shared learning management platforms, shared courses, cross-registration” as well as joint professional development and training for department heads and academic leaders, said Jason Lane, president and CEO of the National Association of System Heads, who previously held multiple senior leadership positions in the SUNY system.

The goal is not only “cost-effectiveness” but “creating more strategic use of resources,” said Lane, who is also a senior adviser to the president of the University of Illinois system. “You can do more and provide more to faculty or staff or students.”

SUNY leaders announced in 2011 a plan that involved having one president oversee two college campuses—this would be done at three pairs of colleges—as part of a cost-saving initiative. But part of the plan was dropped under pressure from state lawmakers, and only two pairs of campuses were unified under single presidencies. The campuses eventually reverted to having separate leaders, though, Lane said, they retained some of their shared services.

Binghamton University and SUNY Broome Community College explored the possibility of integrating the two institutions in 2022, though they ultimately decided against it.

“At this time, there are no plans for SUNY Broome Community College and Binghamton University to merge or consolidate,” read a joint statement from the institutions. “However, as neighboring SUNY institutions in Broome County, we are committed to strengthening our existing partnerships and finding new opportunities to work together.”

While Lane said a community college, like Clinton, fully relocating to a university campus is unique, “we’re seeing more creative relationships between the two-year and the four-year sector” in response to enrollment declines and economic challenges.

Other state systems have made similar efforts to share services and even merge campuses. For example, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education consolidated six campuses into two in the 2022–23 academic year. The University of Tennessee system also acquired Martin Methodist College in 2021, turning the private college into part of the public system.

Butler County Community College considered relocating one of its campuses to Pennsylvania State University at Shenango last summer, as well, and embarked on a feasibility study to explore the idea.

Lane said the SUNY system shouldn’t pare down too much, because “there is a need to ensure that there continues to be access for citizens across the state” in different regions.

At the same time, he believes Clinton Community College and SUNY Plattsburgh offer a helpful model for how to maintain “the mission-specific activities of those institutions while sharing services on the back end and reducing your costs so that you can continue to provide services … serving students and the community.”

He believes these kinds of shared-service arrangements are becoming more common as campus leaders realize they have to collaborate for their institutions to survive.

“That’s what we’re seeing at systems across the country right now … [campus leaders] trying to think more strategically about how do we create a more sustainable financial structure for higher education through the effective use of shared services and administrative structures while maintaining access and student supports?” he said. “This is emblematic of the creative thinking that leaders are engaging in right now to be able to ensure their institutions remain viable moving forward.”

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