In the same year that Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House, voters in Ulster County were asked whether Ulster County should build a two-year community college. The SUNY system was still in formation back in 1961. Only 18 other places in New York State had community colleges. Nearby, Orange and Dutchess counties were two of them. Ulster voters decided that November to join them.
Roughly two years later, in September 1963, classes for the fledgling institution began at a temporary location, the former Ulster Academy on West Chestnut Street. A semester’s tuition only cost $150. Politics and gender relations were different then: the college began with a faculty wives’ club.
The college relocated to Stone Ridge in 1967. Last week, students, professors and administrators gathered to celebrate SUNY Ulster’s 50th anniversary. “We’ve certainly come a long way,” SUNY Ulster president Donald C. Katt said.
Katt started working at SUNY Ulster in 1968, gradually working his way up the ranks until he became president back in 2000. “When we started, we had eight academic programs. Today we have over 60. We started with a little over 200 full- and part-time students back in 1963,” he said. “Two years later, 46 students graduated with their associate degrees. Today we have close to 3,800 students attending college. It’s been a continual growth. We started with 18 faculty members. Today we have over 400.”
SUNY Ulster’s mission as a community college has always emphasized careers and employer needs. During the 1980s, technology classes on data processing were hugely in demand as people trained in computer literacy. Today, network administration courses are in vogue. “We’ve been well-received by the residents of Ulster County,” Katt said. “I think it’s become a part of the fabric of Ulster County.”
Students taking classes with an intention to transfer to other educational institutions make up a bulk of the enrolled. However, other big programs at SUNY Ulster include those on nursing, teaching and law enforcement.
In the past 50 years SUNY Ulster has awarded 20,000 degrees. It’s gotten a lot of other people on track to land a job or continue their undergraduate degrees elsewhere. College officials estimate that SUNY Ulster pumps more than $84 million into the local economy each year. With a $13 million payroll, it’s also one of the county’s largest employers.
SUNY Ulster will continue to hold anniversary events in the coming year. One of them will be an exhibit at Macdonald DeWitt Library that will features historical newspaper clippings, old photos and original college memorabilia.