Last Sunday's (July 25, 2010) New York Times' quarterly supplement, "Education Life", includes a feature story called, "The Accidental Giant of Higher Education" by Peter Appleborne. The article presents a well-deserved focus on the potential of the State University of New York, with an emphasis on Chancellor Nancy Zimpher's ambitious strategic plan to unleash the power of SUNY as an economic driver for the state. Mr. Appleborne outlines some of the challenges SUNY has faced through the years and notes that while it is the largest public university system in the country, SUNY is a multi-faceted entity that has struggled to find an identity and to garner respect. With extraordinarily strong state control over the system (the result of the influence of powerful private New York colleges when SUNY was organized), educational needs have often taken a back seat to political realities.
Mr. Appleborne's article does a good job of explaining some of the frustrations felt by SUNY's four-year state operated campuses and university centers, and even highlights unique institutions within the system such as FIT and the Maritime College. However, there is a glaring omission in this article. Other than one off-hand reference and noting that SUNY includes 64 campuses, the fact that approximately half of all SUNY students attend one of the system's thirty community colleges is ignored in this article. A state map on the first page of the article places each of the 64 campuses, and quite a few of them are highlighted with a pull away note about what makes them unique institutions. Surprisingly, not one of the thirty community colleges - many of which are quite unique - is pulled out for special attention. Community colleges are invisible in this article. They are decidedly NOT invisible in the communities they serve.
There is no doubt that SUNY has the potential to be a powerful driver in New York's economic recovery. However, it is the thirty community colleges that are the most powerful economic engines, with the ability to educate the local workforce and elevate the quality of life in their regions. Community college graduates tend to stay in the area rather than move out of state - at FLCC, 70% of our graduates remain in the region. The article also made note of the tremendous enrollment growth at SUNY in the past year. Interestingly, it implied that the growth had occurred at the four year colleges and university centers when, in fact, nearly all of the growth occurred at community colleges. State-wide, community college enrollment grew by almost 10 percent last year, while the rest of the system grew by only approximately 1 percent. At FLCC, our enrollment grew 18.4% last year alone. Community colleges are becoming the colleges of choice for many New York students, and there is no doubt in my mind that our combination of outstanding teaching, supportive atmosphere and high value makes us the true driving force behind the "power of SUNY".