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TOUGH TIMES: SUNY shifts to meet changing student needs

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POTSDAM - Just over half of SUNY Potsdam students are finishing their bachelors degrees within six years. At SUNY Canton, that number is just better than one in three. At Jefferson Community College, only one-in-four students finish their associates degree within three years.

At the same time, the national graduation rate hovers around 58 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and SUNY’s university centers at Binghamton, Albany, Buffalo and Stony Brook each boast graduation rates over 60 percent.

If this story was only about the graduate rates at local campuses, it would probably be a grim one, but the numbers also speak to a changing education system.

“The last thing SUNY wants is for students come into the system, leave before they have a degree and with a pile of debt,” said David D. Doyle, spokesman for SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. “We all know there are challenges in higher education, but these numbers should be viewed in context.”

A FLEXIBLE SYSTEM

Today’s students are looking for more flexibility when designing their academic program. Many transfer between schools one or more times during their college career.

“Every time a student transfers from SUNY Canton to another institution, SUNY Canton does not get to count that student as a success, even if they successfully graduate from another institution,” said Ryan P. Deuel, SUNY Canton chief of staff.

Both SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam have high transfer rates, 21 percent and 31.7 percent, respectively.

“Some students start here and want to get a solid footing,” said SUNY Potsdam spokeswoman Alexandra M. Jacobs. “Sometimes they decide that they want to go on somewhere else, we always want to help students with that, that is something we’re proud of.”

First time college students often don’t know what they want to study, community and technical colleges offer them a chance to take prerequisite classes at a lower cost than a traditional four-year campus.

“A lot of the numbers have to do with the transfers, which isn’t a weakness of the SUNY system, it is a strength,” Mr. Doyle said. “SUNY is a very affordable option for people, and it provides higher education at multiple levels across New York.”

The SUNY system is shifting to be more flexible for students, emphasizing programs which prepare them for in-demand fields and streamlining the application, registration and financial aid processes. Recently, SUNY moved to a unified financial aid system to cut down on the number of students defaulting on their loans after leaving college.

“We have rolled-out the SUNY Smart Track System, which is leading the nation in financial aid transparency and literacy,” he said. “We all know student debt has now exceeded credit card debt in America, and the Chancellor is trying to lower that.”

The new system will inform students of their school’s graduation rate and transfer rate before they make their choice.

A CHANGING STUDENT POPULATION

Because of recent recessions and a dearth of high-paying jobs, some students are forced to work while they attend school. These students often take one or two classes per semester, instead of attending school full-time.

“We have a lot of students who still receive degrees from us every year who may not fall into the traditional first-time, full-time category of start-to-finish completion,” said Mr. Deuel.

The economy and the rising cost of education has some students choosing to leave their four-year programs to get an associates degree, said Thomas J. Finch, Jefferson Community College vice president for academic affairs.

“The world’s a different place — after two years at a four-year college, you have nothing to show for it if you have to drop out,” he said. “At the end of two years here you can say you’re a college graduate, but also because of the economy today, a lot of people are choosing community colleges because of the cost of education – they present a better option.”

Other times, families may decide to allow their student to attend a community or technical school on a trial basis before moving on to a four-year program, Mr. Finch said.

“A lot of parents will say if you go to a community college for one year and do well, we’ll pay for you to move on,” he said. “It is a more cost-effective option for them.”

Some non-traditional students at community colleges aren’t seeking degrees, but to continue their education through general interest, said Mr. Finch.

Students may choose to stop-and-start their education depending on what is going on in their personal lives. Students may take class one semester, then not enroll the next as they take time to work, raise families or move.

“It is quite a bit different for community colleges,” said Jefferson Community College spokeswoman Karen J. Freeman. “Often times students take longer to obtain their degrees.”

Many community and technical college students are never appropriately measured by the graduation rate, said Mr. Finch.

“One thing about the graduation rate where community colleges are concerned, that rate is only based on individuals who are first-time college students,” he said. “It doesn’t include the adult student who possible spent a semester somewhere when they got out of high school, left and later decided to go back to school.”

FAIR COMPARISONS

Most of SUNY’s community and technical campuses allow open, non-competitive enrollment, meaning a student’s prior academic record has no effect on their chances for admission.

“These community colleges accept anybody,” Mr. Doyle said. “They have open enrollment, they have a lot of people who come in and out and the data is difficult to track.”

Mr. Doyle said the SUNY system is so large and complex, the schools can’t easily be compared.

“These schools serve different professions, different populations and different regions, and their success varies from campus to campus,” he said. “We have 64 campuses and half a million students, there has to be some realism here.”

When compared to other technical schools in the SUNY system, Canton’s 35 percent graduation rate falls just below the average of 37 percent, said Mr. Deuel.

“It is not exactly fair to compare SUNY Canton to Geneseo or Binghamton,” he said. “It is important to compare SUNY Canton to other SUNY colleges of technology, which are our peer institutions.”

Community colleges like Jefferson and technical schools like SUNY Canton attract many non-traditional students interested in a career change, especially in their pre-professional programs like nursing, veterinary technology and dental hygiene. There are so many non-traditional students in those programs, the school has problems tracking their graduation rates, said spokesman Gregory E. Kie.

“Graduation rates for those programs do not work, because the nature of a graduation rate looks at first time, full-time freshmen,” he said. “We have only a few students going into those competitive programs that meet those criteria.”

FAIR MEASUREMENT

Graduation rates, a traditional metric of success, may not be the most accurate measure of how SUNY’s community and technical campuses are doing.

“Graduation rates are very specific and refer to first time, full-time students who complete a degree program,” said Mr. Deuel. “At SUNY Canton, 36 percent of our students do not fall into the first-time, full-time category.”

Instead, the system is turning to ‘success rates’, which adds graduation rates to the number of students who transfer out but continue full-time within 150 percent of the ‘normal’ time to complete a degree, 3 years for an associates degree and 6 years for a bachelors. SUNY Potsdam boasts an 82.8 percent success rate, SUNY Canton measures at 56.3 percent and Jefferson Community College comes in at 62 percent.

SUNY’s current set of graduation rates are for students seeking bachelors degrees who started their academic careers in 2005, and students seeking associates degrees who started in 2007. They do not include recent efforts geared towards retention like better academic advising and financial aid counseling.

Mr. Deuel said SUNY Canton is working to improve its student retention.

“SUNY Canton has hired two retention specialists in the past two years,” he said. “Their primary tasks is to counsel students on successful degree completion in their academic program. This is in addition to normal faculty advisement.”

Ms. Jacobs said SUNY Potsdam is putting a higher premium on other measurements of success, like student satisfaction, in lieu of graduation rates.

“We have to look at a number of different metrics to see how we are doing and how we can improve,” she said. “It is one metric to look at and certainly other people do look at that and we do too, but we also want to see success in other metrics that aren’t included.”

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