This past weekend Newsday reported that the six largest private, non-profit colleges and universities on Long Island as a group lost nine percent of their enrollment between 2012 and 2017. As someone who lives on Long Island and works in higher ed marketing and communications, the story obviously caught my attention.
The news did not surprise me. Long Island’s population is aging, so there are fewer high school students than during the Baby Boom years and the decades that followed. Tuition at private colleges has become unaffordable for most families. In addition, because public colleges in the SUNY and CUNY systems have improved and have lower tuition, they are taking market share.
Newsday’s story did not focus on the causes of enrollment decline. They are old news. Rather, the story emphasized how the institutions are responding to the threat. One school has stepped up its national marketing. Another highlights its mission. Others are adding new programs.
When any business, for-profit or non-profit, sees revenue decline, it needs to bring expenses in line. However, even though cost cutting can keep an enterprise from going under, it is not, by itself, a strategy for growth.
In higher education, reducing expenses and eliminating programs can be a tricky proposition. Sometimes, mission-critical programs do not cover their costs. They are cross-subsidized by surpluses from cash flow-positive programs. In some instances, a department that generates few completions provides classes that are required for other majors.
Additionally, when a program is eliminated, its share of institutional overhead does not go away. It is spread among the remaining programs, which means their expenses appear to be higher.
Rather than simply eliminate programs, institutions would be better off reallocating resources to programs that can attract more students, according to Robert Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates, a strategy consulting firm focused on higher education. Replacing a weak program with one with that has strong demand can lead to higher enrollment and better cash flow.
Gray offers a Program Evaluation System that its clients use to decide which programs to Start, Stop, Sustain or Grow. It features a customizable rubric that incorporates 40 data points to generate scores for student demand, employment outlook, competition and strategic fit. Using this method to rank its programs, institutional leadership and faculty can identify opportunities for enrollment growth and where to find funds to enter or expand into more attractive fields. Disclosure: Gray is one of my clients.
For Long Island’s colleges and universities, the best opportunities are likely to be in the data and health sciences. Amazon and Google’s plans to add new employees in New York City by the tens of thousands will create huge demand for graduates with technical degrees. In addition, Northwell Health, Long Island’s largest employer announced that it will build a 225,000 square foot R&D center at the Nassau Hub, within sight of the Hofstra University and Nassau Community College campuses.
I’m betting that many of Long Island’s colleges and universities will be ready to meet those employer needs and student demand. Stony Brook University, a public institution, is already recognized as a leading school for science, mathematics, engineering and medicine. Hofstra recently launched a school of medicine, in partnership with Northwell, and an engineering school.
They won’t have the market to themselves, of course. The new Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island is within walking distance of where Amazon plans to build. NYU, Columbia and CUNY have all stepped up their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings.
By offering the right programs and building ties with Amazon and other members of New York’s blossoming technology community, Long Island’s colleges and universities can attract well-prepared students from other parts of the country. And, they should remember to mention that the beach is nearby and we have the best pizza and bagels.