Ambitious goals set for SUNY New Paltz

The SUNY New Paltz campus. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The SUNY New Paltz campus. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

SUNY New Paltz administrators have set out some ambitious goals to achieve in the next five years, including reducing the average length of time it takes students to earn degrees and increasing the number of students who stick around from one year to the next. Doing so in the context of limited state aid and significant space constraints on campus mean that they will have to get creative, according to SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian. He provided an overview of the campus’ performance improvement plan to the College Council last Thursday. The goals laid out in the plan align the existing strategic plan with priorities laid out as the “Power of SUNY” initiative.

Christian said that it was a “pretty rewarding process” to create the performance improvement plan. The college’s goals as laid out in the strategic plan are not dissimilar, although organized differently, indicating that administrators are of a like mind with top SUNY officials. The strategic plan was designed to cover up to 2019, while the performance improvement plan’s five-year span extends one year further into the future.

One significant push being made by the chancellor statewide, Christian said, is to increase the number of degrees offered through SUNY annually from 93,000 to 150,000. Initially set as a goal for 2020, that’s been pushed back to 2025, but it still is a steep hill to climb. “I don’t know if we think we can increase our degrees by 50%” in that period of time, Christian said, particularly given the space constraints on campus. Classroom space and faculty alike are strained to the limits, and college officials have long been concerned about the housing capacity on campus. Although a new dorm is now operational, hopes for the Park Point project to provide residence options immediately off campus were high until the rejection of that application by the town’s Planning Board, which was subsequently upheld in court.

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That means exploring ways to increase enrollment without adding housing, Christian said. Goals include offering 325 degrees wholly online by 2020, and an additional 125 that are a hybrid of classroom and online education. Another program is seeking to recruit students from the active military and veteran populations; administrators believe that most of those interested would be people who already live nearby and wouldn’t need housing alternatives.

Veterans are also being targeted as a way to increase the diversity of the campus population. They are members of but one underrepresented group that will be actively sought under a diversity and inclusion plan, which will be overseen by a chief diversity officer. An Inclusion and Campus Culture Committee is also to be created to guide that process, which will guide the ongoing recruitment of students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds. One of the concerns expressed by students who walked out of classes Friday was that steady increases in tuition are leading to a more affluent, whiter student population. Christian supports those increases as part of a larger plan, which includes lobbying for the restoration of state aid which has been cut in recent years.

Closely related to the cost of college is the resulting student debt. The performance improvement plan includes metrics for monitoring and managing debt, including boosting enrollment in the Smart Track program from the present 4% of students to 20%. Smart Track is a tool that monitors debt loads and ability to repay. The plan also calls for reducing default rates to 2% from 2.8%, and increasing the amount of borrowers repaying their loans by four percentage points, from 88% to 92%.

Big data will take a more active role in education, as well. Christian said that analytics could guide what he called “intrusive advising” to ensure that struggling students either get appropriate support, or shift to a program where they’re more likely to succeed. That’s in line with other metrics, such as increasing the retention rate of students after the first and second years of college. Graduation rates are also being targeted: 55% now earn a degree in four years and 73% in six; goals aim for those figures to reach 62% and 79%, respectively. The average time to earn a degree is now 4.3 years, and it’s hoped that by 2020 a four-year degree will be earned in an average of four years.

The plan also lays out other goals, such as establishing at least one Start-Up NY partner by 2018 to benefit from the tax-free program, raise the number of major donors from 24 to 100, and increase volunteerism among students and employees alike.

While many of the goals will require more financial resources to achieve, Christian said that they are “what we should be doing as a public university” regardless. Nevertheless, council members see only a greater need for more non-traditional housing and classrooms, at the very least; member Eli Basch observed that “New Paltz breeds its own success,” which lead to more and more applications for admission.

Christian said that increasing the student population alone would be completely unrealistic. “We would never add 4,000 students, we can’t do it,” he noted after the meeting. Targeting the large number of New Yorkers who never earned college degrees, as well as moving current students “through the pipeline more quickly,” are key to implementing the performance improvement plan in his eyes.

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