Ready to compete

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian speaks at a September 11th memorial service on campus in 2011. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian speaks at a September 11th memorial service on campus in 2011. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Colleges have much longer maturation processes than the students they try to educate. It took 57 years for the New Paltz Classical School to become the New Paltz Training and Normal School. It took another 63 years before the teachers’ college became one of the 30 schools folded into the new public state university system. Now that 65 years have passed since that signal event, perhaps the institution will soon be ready to evolve another step.

By many indicators of selectivity, SUNY New Paltz has been improving in recent years. Average SAT scores, higher than at most SUNY schools, have increased markedly. Entering students have to have higher grades in high school than they used to. Graduation rates are increasing rapidly, too. And national surveys of public universities show New Paltz improving its quality ranking steadily.

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Other metrics show the college remains in a competitive position. New faculty continues to replenish the teaching ranks. Although the number of New York high-school graduates is expected to decrease in the next few years, its applications show New Paltz in a good position to hold its own during the shortfall.

There’s substantial further progress to be made, of course. In his State of the College address last year, college president Dr. Donald Christian noted that only one student among the high-school valedictorians and salutatorians in Ulster County last year planned on attending New Paltz. Some of the best students at the local community colleges also transfer to private colleges, “We must continue to combat the mystique that a private college education is better than anything New Paltz has to offer,” said Christian.

Christian acknowledges that long-distance learning, colleges offering credits for experience, and massive on-line open web courses (MOOCs) are becoming ever more important trends in education. But he is convinced that SUNY New Paltz’s future will be as a liberal-arts college with an expanded presence in the community. He praises some new faculty members for possessing skills and expertise that are in great demand.

What are the goals of a New Paltz education? It’s not just what a student learns in his or her major field. According to the Association of America’s Colleges and Universities, of which Christian is an active member, a well-rounded college education includes broad intellectual knowledge, critical thinking, creative problem-solving and technological and communications skills.

Employers asked to rank what colleges should place more emphasis on stress the quality of written and oral communications above all else. Some 88 per cent of employers say that the challenges their employees face within their organizations are more complex today than they were in the past. Nearly two-thirds of employers say college graduates need both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth knowledge and skills in a specific field.

The importance of housing

Concerned about remaining competitive in attracting transfer students, the institution has focused on expanding housing options in New Paltz, including the huge and controversial Park Point project. The college’s surveys, according to Christian, have shown that over half of the transfer students would live in apartments in or near the campus if these were available.

Expanded housing options would let students “remain more connected with campus life than is currently possible,” in Christian’s words. Non-commuting students would become less transient and have a richer college experience. In the long run, that’s an important goal for the evolution of the college. But in his remarks on the subject, Christian has not yet acknowledged the additional costs an expanded campus would cause for the provision of services by the community. That problem must be addressed if Park Point is to fly.

The number of graduate students, particularly in education, has been dropping. New Paltz is planning to inaugurate a program in mechanical engineering. Christian thinks a certificate in 3D fabrication and other art-technology combinations would attract students. A partnership with Clarkson and others for a biotech program is possible. So is a fresh approach to education courses.

The college offers 100 undergraduate degree programs and 50 graduate programs.

A cultural hub

The New Paltz college continues to evolve into the status of a broader university. As it does, its president believes, New Paltz will become more of a cultural hub in the Hudson Valley, attracting meetings, conferences and outside programs.

The six community colleges make the structure of public college education in the region unique in the state, Christian believes. He says Dutchess currently boasts the biggest feeder community college to New Paltz.

Enrollment director L. David Eaton provided data on the county of residence for approximately 22,375 New Paltz alumni/ae under 65 years who reside in the Hudson Valley. The information showed 7625 graduates resident in Ulster County, 5125 in Dutchess, 5000 in Orange, 1940 in Westchester, 1310 in Rockland, 940 in Sullivan, and 435 in Putnam County.

An additional 29,125 grads live elsewhere, mostly in New York City and on Long Island.

Meanwhile, after several painful years of budget cuts and staff reductions, New Paltz is positioning itself for a shift in the basis for funding among SUNY campuses that might or might not be favorable to it. But there’s hope on the horizon. In last week’s gubernatorial state-of-the-state speech, Andrew Cuomo proposed a new round of state education funding that would offer public colleges the opportunity to compete for system-wide grants. Successful projects would be selected in a competitive manner based on economic impact, advancement of academic goals, innovation and collaboration, he said.

New Paltz is ready to compete, Christian said.

Meanwhile, the college has been preparing an update to its own strategic plan. A draft plan with revisions has been circulated to members of the committee shepherding it. It’s expected that the plan will be circulated to the campus community this spring. Members of that community will be invited to attend open forums to discuss the document.

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