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SUNY Sullivan adapts to pandemic's challenges

Fall Enrollment currently down only two percent

Joseph Abraham - Co-editor
Posted 9/7/20

SUNY Sullivan President Jay Quaintance joined the Sullivan County Democrat Podcast last week to talk about COVID-19's effects on the college. Topics ranged from their initial response to the …

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SUNY Sullivan adapts to pandemic's challenges

Fall Enrollment currently down only two percent


SUNY Sullivan President Jay Quaintance joined the Sullivan County Democrat Podcast last week to talk about COVID-19's effects on the college. Topics ranged from their initial response to the pandemic, what they learned from the experience, challenges associated with planning the 2020-21 budget, fall enrollment and anticipated long-term changes to colleges in general. To listen to the full interview, check out our channel on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn and Spotify, or by clicking on this link: https://soundcloud.com/user-39457758/special-podcast-episode-60-suny-sullivan-jay-quaintance

LOCH SHELDRAKE -- While the COVID-19 pandemic caused academic institutions across the country to make a quick switch from the classroom to a new virtual reality last spring, SUNY Sullivan was fortunate to already have six fully online programs in place pre-pandemic.

“We had a lot of expertise on campus, and we were able to have the folks that were really used to teaching in an online program help those that had less experience with that,” said SUNY Sullivan President Jay Quaintance.

That work continued this summer as SUNY Sullivan needed to convert fall-term courses into online or distance learning platforms, utilizing their instructional technology staff and more experienced faculty.

“One of the things that we learned about ourselves is that we're actually very good at this,” Quaintance said. “And our students, I think, genuinely appreciated it. We were in pretty much constant contact with the entire student body over the course of the summer and heading into the fall term, for a couple of reasons. One is we wanted to make sure that we kept them engaged and that they came back in the fall. And the other was to make sure their needs were being met.”

And that goes beyond the classroom.

SUNY Sullivan received $519,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to distribute to students who, because of their financial circumstances as a result of COVID-19, had some unmet needs. So the college was continuously sending out those checks to students, and helping them through that process.

“It's been gratifying to see how well the faculty and staff and the folks at the college really came together and with one sense of purpose,” said Quaintance, “which was we need to do best by our students and make sure that they have what they need so that they can continue on and be successful on the other side of the pandemic.”

The budget process

With the pandemic beginning when the state's budget season typically closes (end of March), and the expectation of declining revenue, the state had set up the budget so that at four points during the year, if there was a variance of one percent above expenditures, or one percent below revenue, they could reduce the actual enacted budget.

“What that meant for us going into our budget development was we had to be ready for kind of a worst case scenario,” said Quaintance.

The college then explored 18 different potential scenarios.

“What we settled on was a target of five percent down in enrollment from last year,” said Quaintance. “We had the highest growth in community colleges last year at about five and a half percent. So this would have put us back to two years ago in terms of enrollment. And then we started looking at what the potential cuts from the state would have been. And we modeled all the way down to 25 percent cut, which we're hopeful still doesn't happen. But the state is withholding 20 percent of our support right now. So it was a challenge.”

The result was the college cutting several million dollars out of the budget.

“It's a very unfortunate situation, but it did necessitate layoffs at the college, which is something I've been really trying to avoid since I arrived, even though we've been in kind of fiscal challenges, mostly because the state doesn't keep their end up,” Quaintance said. “But at this point, there was just nothing we could do, there was no foreseeable way that we would be able to make a budget without doing that.”

Quaintance added that they're hopeful, at some point, the federal government will recognize that states and localities need federal support and that there's really no way for them to get through this without some kind of federal intervention.

“And at that point, then the hope would be that the state would reinstate the 20 percent and that we would ultimately be okay and be able to bring people back to work, but that still remains to be seen,” he said.


Long-term effects

Fall classes began on August 31, and at the moment, SUNY Sullivan beat their enrollment projection, as they're currently only down two percent from this time last year.

According to Quaintance, what is keeping SUNY Sullivan comparable to last year's enrollment is a high number of returning students, and a high number of transfer and readmitted students.

“Many of the community colleges in our region -- Ulster, Dutchess, Orange -- are seeing double digit declines in their enrollment from last year and they saw declines last year from the prior year,” said Quaintance. “So we're actually doing considerably better than most community colleges across New York State. I think that's just a great testament to the quality of programs that we have, the kind of outreach that we've been doing and the student engagement work that we've been doing throughout the pandemic.”

Quaintance believes the pandemic has pointed out, to even a greater extent than before, that a traditional four-year residential college experience, especially a private college experience, is not something that people necessarily want to invest in moving forward.

He also foresees a possible consolidation of higher education, noting that a lot of smaller schools, especially private will end up closing, as he is unsure how they can maintain.

“I think we're going to start to see mergers of schools in the future,” he said. “And I think we're going to start to see increased flexibility in how students complete a degree even across the SUNY system. Just like there's for profits, like University of Phoenix, or there's state funded schools like Arizona State that have national online programs, SUNY is moving in that direction to where you'll receive a degree from a SUNY institution, but the credits will be purchased through a centralized mechanism. So we're going to start to see kind of consolidation, increased flexibility and better decision making by consumers of what they want to spend their higher education dollar on.”


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