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Park Point: A letter to faculty and Staff

New Paltz Faculty and Staff:

Many of you are aware that the Park Point project continues to draw interest and attention.  As I noted in my State of the College address last week, the environmental review of this project is nearly complete, and the Town Planning Board will hold public hearings this fall. I have spoken and written before about this project and what it means to the College.  I share here a detailed assessment and relevant data and analysis of student demand for campus-linked housing at New Paltz.  This information showcases the deep interest of the College in the success of this project, as a basis for sustaining our educational and economic contributions in the Hudson Valley and the basis for my support for the project at the same time I am committed to not increasing our undergraduate enrollments.   I hope that after reading this, you will consider attending the upcoming public hearing (date to be determined) to express your support for the project.

Faculty and Staff Housing.  Most of my focus below is on increased housing for our students.  Expanded housing for faculty and staff will strengthen our ability to continue recruiting exceptional employees and integrating them into our academic community.  Currently, because of the high cost and limited availability of housing in New Paltz, many new employees reside well outside of New Paltz – some beyond the boundaries of Ulster County.  Park Point housing will help these new employees gain a foothold in the community, increasing the chances that they ultimately will settle nearby.  It is unfortunate that many people have not understood that the developer will pay full taxes on these units to support K-12 education, recognizing that employees are more likely than students to have school-aged children.

Enrollment Trends and Projections at SUNY New Paltz.  I am aware of concern that the additional housing provided by Park Point might allow the College to grow its enrollment, exacerbating traffic congestion and other impacts of an expanded student body.  Indeed, some have asserted that supporting growth is the motivation for the College’s interest in Park Point.  As I and others at the College have stated publicly on numerous occasions, including in commitments to our accrediting bodies and SUNY System Administration, our undergraduate enrollments (more than 80% of the total) have been remarkably stable for the past decade, and our explicit, publicly stated plan is to maintain those enrollment levels. Our plan is not to grow them.

Our full-time graduate student enrollments have been stable for several years, while part-time enrollments have declined substantially.  As a result, we have capacity to increase graduate enrollments. Any increase would return us to enrollment levels of a decade ago, not to numbers higher than this community has seen.   

Non-residential Capacity Constraints.  As I have shared before, even if our goals did include growing our undergraduate enrollments, we lack capacity to do so without a massive infusion of both capital and operational funding, virtually out of the question in the foreseeable future.  For example, as shown in the following graph, SUNY New Paltz has the least non-residential space per student of any SUNY
comprehensive college – a deficit of more than 400,000 gross square feet that our new 77,239-square-foot  science building (construction to begin this year) will fill  only slightly.  From left to right, the four bars (in red) for New Paltz are the space allocation at the time of this study (2011) and the projected needs in 2013, 2018, and 2023The fact that the projected need does not increase over time reflects our goals of no enrollment growth.  Our other major capital projects to start this year are renovations to structures with decades of deferred maintenance, which obviously do nothing to address our space shortage.

In addition, our numbers of faculty and support staff, library facilities, psychological and mental health counselors, academic advisors, wellness and recreational facilities, and other key resources are already stretched by current enrollment levels.  Any increases in enrollment without major growth in funding would lead to a significant deterioration in the quality of our academic and student life offerings.  New Paltz has worked too hard for too long to build a regional and national reputation as an extremely well-regarded, high-value public institution.  We will not sacrifice that quality for increased quantity.

In sum, SUNY New Paltz does not have the capacity or the intention to grow undergraduate enrollments.
Student Demand for Park Point Housing.   If New Paltz does not intend to grow its enrollments, where is the student demand for housing other than current students who dwell-off campus in the New Paltz community?  As shown in the following graph, New Paltz residence hall capacity (first red bar) is below the average for 8 other  SUNY comprehensive colleges for which we have comparable data (blue bar).  Indeed, the percentage of students for whom New Paltz can provide beds (45%) ranks last among these  
Designed Residence Hall Capacity (Percentage of Undergraduates Housed)Chart
campuses.  Although not shown here, we also rank last among these 9 campuses in the square footage of residential living space per student (115 square feet per student versus 158 square feet average for the other campuses).  This year, we will begin construction of a new, 225-bed residence hall.  As shown in the middle red bar of the graph, the addition of this new residence hall – the only one on our near-term planning horizon – still will leave us with a residence hall capacity far below the average of our SUNY sister campuses. 

Park Point will not be a part of the campus, although because of its proximity it will provide housing for students nearer to campus than currently possible –supporting our goal of housing students so that it is more feasible for them to be involved in campus life.  But for purposes of illustration, the combination of our current bed capacity (2,980 beds),  the 225 beds in our new residence hall, and the approximately 700 beds at Park Point would provide one bed for each 0.59 New Paltz student (third red bar) – precisely the average of the 8 other SUNY college campuses.  Of course, this comparison ignores the reality that students at several of these other campuses enjoy access to near-campus, student-only apartment housing, as noted below.

To build or renovate a residence hall, the campus borrows money through the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York and can only do so if it can indicate that its room rents will cover the debt service as well as all operating and maintenance costs for all of our residence halls. With many years of deferred maintenance in most of our existing residence halls, the campus would need decades to be in a position to build what Park Point can build in a shorter time frame, even though the developer  must go through the site approval process through the town, given that the land is not owned by the  College. Indeed, planning for the new residence hall we will build this year began in 2008 and 2009, a timeline that reflects the complexity of funding and other challenges  to gaining approval for a new state building.    Legislation passed last year, with support from our Assembly member Kevin Cahill and Senator John Bonacic, eased some of the bureaucratic barriers to financing our residence hall programs by removing residence hall bonding caps from the overall state bond limits.

In other words, Park Point housing will contribute capacity to serve current numbers of New Paltz students at a standard more like that already enjoyed by students at other campuses with which we compete for students.  Park Point will not create excess housing, nor does it create capacity for growth in enrollment, if we apply the standard of housing availability at other SUNY campuses.  Furthermore, New Paltz currently is one of a handful of SUNY 4-year campuses that do not provide on-campus or campus-linked apartment style housing. 
New Paltz has built a reputation as a residential college offering diverse liberal arts and professional programs and a vibrant campus life where students develop leadership, social, and organizational skills that complement their academic learning.  Students are specifically attracted to the residential programming at New Paltz, yet we offer on-campus or near-campus housing to a smaller percentage of our students that any other SUNY comprehensive, residential college.  Park Point provides an avenue to correct these clear deficiencies that, as I describe below, threaten our continuing success.    

Transfer Students.  The New Paltz students least well served by current campus housing are transfer students, who represent about one-half of the students who graduate from New Paltz each year.  These students come from community colleges, especially in the Hudson Valley but also from other parts of the state, and some after attending other 4-year public or private colleges. 

Except for limited housing made available to transfer students admitted for this fall (2013, described below), it has been at least six years since we were able to provide on-campus housing for transfer students. 

Admissions Office staff hear regularly from prospective transfer students that New Paltz is their #1 choice.  But they also hear that many of these students decide to attend another college or university upon learning that we cannot provide on-campus housing.  Current students tell me of friends who would like to transfer to New Paltz from community colleges near home but do not apply because of the well-known lack of on-campus housing for transfer students at New Paltz.  And we hear regularly about the trials of our transfer students trying to find housing in the New Paltz community that provides a decent value.

Our targets for transfer student admission are 650 students to begin in the fall and 350 in the spring, 1,000 total each year.  We have a strong record of reaching or slightly exceeding those targets.  Those students are typically with us at least two years, sometimes longer, creating a total of more than 2,000 transfer students with us at any one time – none of whom have been housed on campus the past several years.  More than 60% of first-year transfer students surveyed during new-student orientation in summer 2012 indicated interest in near-campus apartment style housing if it were available.  Applying that indication of interest to the above estimate of total transfer students at New Paltz yields an estimate of 1,200 or more transfer students potentially interested in Park Point housing – approaching double the capacity of the development.

Park Point and Residence-Hall Students.  Park Point is not specifically intended as transfer student housing.  First-time, first-year students are required to live in the residence halls. Many students remain in the residence halls through their senior year, reflecting a re-contracting rate that is unusually high by any industry standard.  Some do so because of their positive experience with residence hall programming and campus life, some because they assess currently available off-campus apartments as not providing value that justifies moving off campus, and some for a combination of these reasons.   I hear regularly from residence-hall dwellers who would be interested in “graduating” to high-value apartments adjacent to campus that Park Point would provide. 
A shift of some students out of residence halls and into Park Point would allow us to accommodate more transfer students in our residence halls.  Last spring, we conducted a small “experiment” to test directly the demand for residence hall housing among transfer students.   Knowing that we almost certainly would increase the rate of “tripling” in the residence halls, we offered (on a first-come, first-served basis) about 100 beds to transfer student applicants for this fall semester, something we have not done for years.  Despite having fewer applications for transfer admission and accepting fewer transfer students than last year, the number of paid deposits exceeded the previous year through the early parts of our recruitment season, with the difference accounted for by accepted transfer students who also paid deposits to live in a residence hall.

That evident demand occurred even with limited notice, a late announcement of housing availability (January), and an existing reputation that New Paltz does not have on-campus housing for transfer students.  When those 100 residence hall spots had been assigned, we noticed a distinctive lag from the previous year in the number of accepted transfer students who paid deposits to attend New Paltz, even though we eventually reached our enrollment target.

This “experiment” and the above calculation provide strong demonstration of anticipated student demand for Park Point housing, through a combination of housing for current on-campus residential students in their sophomore through senior years and transfer students.    I must emphasize that these projections are based on current enrollment levels.

Thriving in an Intensely Competitive Environment.  As noted above, some in the community assert that the SUNY New Paltz interest in Park Point student housing is to increase our enrollments.  Others seem to believe that increased student housing would be “nice” for the College but do not seem to grasp the negative consequences of not addressing this need. 

In contrast, my senior leadership team and I judge that housing is sorely needed to allow us to remain competitive in an extremely challenging environment for higher education in the Northeast – including the very basic function of recruiting students in numbers to sustain enrollment and program viability.    We have a responsibility to analyze and assess the external environment, to anticipate and plan for the threats and opportunities it presents, and to respond accordingly.  Our interest in Park Point housing grows out of our assessment that increased student housing is critical for our ability to compete for students, and in doing so to sustain our programs and financial base. 

At the core of these concerns are demographic changes in the Northeast, reflected in declining numbers of high school graduates, as shown in the next graph.  These declines are projected to continue into the
mid-2020’s and are already affecting mid-Hudson school districts (Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, 2013;  These declines are less pronounced in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island, primary areas where SUNY New Paltz recruits students.  But colleges and universities throughout New York and the Northeast view the same statistics that we do, and are intensifying their recruitment efforts in areas of traditional recruitment strength for New Paltz. 

Some are building housing to support these efforts. For example, SUNY Adirondack Community College has opened its first residence hall this semester, filling 350 of 400 slots.  A March 2012 Adirondack CC press release read: “With declining high school populations in our service area, on-campus student housing will allow us to maintain current enrollment levels by being able to accommodate residential students from outside our area… [we] plan to promote the new housing option not only locally, but also in key markets such as Albany, Long Island, northern New Jersey, and Connecticut.”  Adirondack joins several other SUNY community colleges adding, or contemplating, new residence halls, including Dutchess County, intended to help them sustain the scope and scale of their programs.  Interestingly, state law does not allow community colleges to own residence halls, so these developments are happening through LLCs and private developers, much like Park Point.
Students at SUNY Cortland, Plattsburgh, Brockport, and others have access to privately built or managed off-campus apartments dedicated to student housing, all  built in the past 3-4 years. Binghamton University recently completed a new student housing complex that adds 900 beds to its housing stock, supportive of that university’s goal to increase its enrollment by 2,000 students by fall 2015; Binghamton is one of the top two major competitors with New Paltz for bright students.

This combination of demographic change and increased competition for students is very real and immediate.  SUNY system data – not including community colleges – demonstrate the reality that students are re-distributing themselves among campuses, in fairly dramatic ways.  Total applications to SUNY for fall 2013 admission were up slightly, increasing by more than 4% to the university centers (like Binghamton) but decreasing by more than 2% for the comprehensive college sector.  Applications to New Paltz increased slightly by 1.7%, but several other comprehensive colleges saw declines in applications as great as 8% in a single year; application numbers were lower at 8 of 12 comprehensive colleges.  Even though New Paltz met its enrollment targets for this fall, we cannot ignore these shifting patterns and the uncertainty that they forecast for campus enrollments.
Several sample headlines of the past year (annotated with brief notes) illustrate these realities: Colleges in Northeast Face Grimmer Future, Analysis Predicts.  Chronicle of Higher Education, February 6, 2013.  This article highlights that factors such as declining state appropriations and a drop in high school graduates may have particular impacts in the Northeast, and “this gloomy scenario could lead to more closures and consolidations…”

Cayuga Community College cuts costs in anticipation of decreased enrollment. The Citizen, March 8, 2013.  The article describes a drop in enrollment that is leading to a projected 5% decline in revenue.  To address this shortage, the college is considering options such as reducing the hours of part-time employees and requiring unpaid days off.  Parenthetically, Cayuga is one of the community colleges that does not have residence halls.
SUNY Fredonia may close dining center.  Dunkirk Observer, March 4, 2013.  A report of some of the budgetary impacts of a 5.3% drop in overall enrollment from the previous academic year.

Enrollment figures may lead to problematic budget gap.  The Record (Buffalo State University), October 24, 2012.  An article describing that a drop of 250 undergraduate and 180 graduate students is responsible for a projected $2.4 million revenue loss for the year at Buffalo State University.

Drop in enrollment increases chances of layoffs at HVCC.  The Record (Troy), August 14, 2012.  This article raises concern about budget impacts of a 4.5% enrollment decrease from the previous year at Hudson Valley Community College.   A later article (The Record, January 31, 2013) “Layoffs may loom in HVCC future if funding problem isn’t fixed” described a projected $7.9 million budget shortfall due to a variety of budget issues that include declining enrollment. 

SUNY New Paltz does not want to grow undergraduate enrollment.  But at the same time we and others must recognize the serious consequences that declines in enrollment would bring to our educational mission and our economic, social, and cultural contributions as the sole public, baccalaureate university in the mid-Hudson Valley.  Clearly, competition with other campuses providing residential college environments is increasing, and housing is critical in our ability to go toe-to-toe with them in competition for students.   A worst fear would be a constrained ability to recruit the numbers and quality of students that we need to sustain our programs, a decline in enrollment, lower revenue (tuition, taxpayer support, or both), diminished employment opportunities, and a resulting downward spiral in the size and scope of our contributions.  

SUNY New Paltz is one of the largest employers in Ulster County, and has an economic impact in the Hudson Valley estimated at $338 million annually.  Even those in our community who are neutral about the high-quality educational offerings at the College must recognize the non-educational stakes surrounding our ability to remain strong.  Park Point is critical to the goal of attracting students to New Paltz, which in turn is essential to the benefits that SUNY New Paltz brings to Ulster County and to the Hudson Valley.  

Donald P. Christian