Cause for alarm at SUNY Fredonia

Commentary

Fredonia State has decided to undergo life-saving surgery. Quoted in the OBSERVER, President Virginia Horvath said the structural deficit for this academic year was projected to be $12 million. There is another massive structural deficit projected for next year.

Facing these difficulties, the college tentatively plans to surgically cut out programs such as applied mathematics, art history, French, philosophy, and some fine arts programs (ceramics, film, and sculpture). It also tentatively plans to cut the English and biology departments’ graduate programs as well as graduate education programs in the education and math departments. Disclosure: I chair the philosophy department.

The alleged emergency is caused by a sharp decline in the quantity and quality of students at Fredonia. Consider first quantity. The student body has fallen 20 percent in eight years from the enrollment high water mark to its current level — 5,775 in 2009 to 4,631 in 2017. It now has, roughly 1,100 fewer students. Fewer students means less revenue. The structural deficit came about in part because each year between 2009 and 2015, the number of students decreased while spending increased.

Consider, next, quality. The number of weak high school students — bottom half of their high school class — has increased by 65 percent in the last five years — 15.8 percent to 26.1 percent of Fredonia’s incoming class. This underestimates the increase given that an incredible 29 percent don’t report their high school rank. Assuming that they have the same distribution of high school ranking as the rest of the incoming students, roughly a third of incoming Fredonia students were in the bottom half of their high school class. Over the same period, the acceptance rate has climbed upward — 52 percent to 65 percent.

These things matter because student ability (measured by SAT score and class rank) predict a student’s likelihood of graduating from college and performance while there.

Along with this change in student ability, retention is a problem. Many of the students who transfer out of Fredonia go to community colleges, suggesting that some were not ready for the rigor of a four-year college or didn’t want to be too far away from home. It is unclear if retention explains why Fredonia has a lower graduation rate than a number of its competitors such as Brockport, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego (U.S. Department of Education numbers).

In comparative student ability, the college has held steady. Among comprehensive SUNY colleges, it is tied for having the sixth smartest students (out of the 10 comprehensives that provide a SAT range). In order of student ability as measured by SATs, Fredonia ranks behind Geneseo, New Paltz, Oswego/Cortland, and Brockport. It is tied with Oneonta.

Fredonia is far behind the major university centers (in order of student ability) Binghamton, Stony Brook, Buffalo, and Albany. It’s worth noting that two of the four university centers have students who are, on average, noticeably better than Geneseo students. Buffalo and Geneseo students are on par.

Fredonia State frantically pursues diversity. Here the college had less success. According to a recent study by the USC Race and Equity Center, Fredonia received an F in the diversity equity index. In fact, it received the lowest score of any SUNY college. For those of us who think diversity is unimportant, this is no big deal. If Fredonia State poured resources into pursuing it, though, this is a problem.

There is good news on the campus as well. The college regularly has outstanding students (often in my classes). They end up doing very well in areas such as law and business and, also, in their family lives. The faculty is peppered with talented scholars and outstanding teachers.

The college will have to choose what sort of institution it wants to be. First, it could move toward being an open-admissions-type institution, thereby aiming to serve disadvantaged and first generation college students. Consider, for example, Buffalo State or Old Westbury. Second, it could shrink the number of employees and students and aim to be a highly competitive liberal arts college similar to Geneseo. Third, it could more sharply focus on its signature arts programs by further transferring resources from business, humanities, and the sciences into the arts (music, studio arts, and theater). The arts programs (for example, music) are expensive per student and, as a result, investing in them has significant opportunity costs. Fourth, it could try to be an all-purpose college that pursues all of these goals and achieves them to varying degrees.

The problem with the fourth model is that it risks Fredonia not having a brand name. This is a problem for marketing and recruitment. It also results in an unclear roadmap when the college is deciding how to tradeoff increasing the caliber of students against providing opportunity for the disadvantaged students, promoting diversity, and making sure there aren’t layoffs.

There is a moral case for the university continuing to allow the caliber of students to fall by focusing on the disadvantaged and diverse students. This might be accompanied surgically cutting out programs that add too little revenue to the university (see tentative plans above) or that are unlikely to serve disadvantaged and weaker students. The argument is that the most capable students are much more likely than other students to graduate, graduate on time, and major in fields that have a good return on investment. If so, these students have the least need for educational subsidies. They can go to better private colleges or, within SUNY, university centers or elite comprehensive colleges. The students who are less likely to graduate, graduate on time, or who tend toward weaker majors (in terms of return on investment or worth of subject matter) are the ones most in need of education-welfare.

One might think that investment in education like any other investment should be private as a way to ensure efficient decisions and that taxpayers don’t get soaked. However, given that this is not going to happen, one can see why a university might want to pursue social-justice-related goals.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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