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Sunday, December 5, 2021
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Capital Region U: How Our Local Colleges and Universities Are Killing the Higher Ed Game

In an increasingly competitive and ever-changing higher ed market, our local schools are holding their own—and then some.

When you think of the stereotypical “college town”—a city or community crawling with college students—you probably envision a big city like Boston, which is home to several large universities including Harvard, Tufts, Boston College and Boston University. The last place you’d probably think of is Troy, NY. But, oh, how we’d beg to differ. The Collar City, population 50,000, boasts three colleges—Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Russell Sage College and Hudson Valley Community College—whose collective student bodies account for a whopping 44 percent of its overall residential population, per the Albany Business Review. Boston, which boasts a population of 650,000, has about five percent fewer students on its city blocks than Troy does. Take that, Beantown.

And Troy isn’t an outlier by any means; the rest of the Capital Region has more than its fair share of collegiate foot traffic, too. Albany alone has 10 colleges and universities within its city limits, including the University at Albany (a.k.a. UAlbany) and The College of Saint Rose. Schenectady, meanwhile  is home to the area’s oldest college, Union, and its second-largest community college, Schenectady County Community College. Add in Siena College in Loudonville and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and that’s nearly 80,000 students who call the region home.

But good education isn’t necessarily a numbers game. Now that it’s clear that we have a lot of colleges packed with many eager students, how do they stack up nationally? “Very, very well,” says Dean Skarlis, Ed.D., president and owner of The College Advisor of New York, an Albany-based coaching firm for prospective college students. “If you just go by the rankings, which I don’t, RPI is up there pretty high…Skidmore and Union are up there pretty high, too. Siena has an outstanding business program. Saint Rose is noted for its education programs and music. UAlbany is probably the most significant research university in the area.” Additionally, Skarlis says, in recent years, RPI graduates have tended to garner some of the highest starting salaries of any recent grads in the country. In other words, our colleges are top notch.

While U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings don’t offer an all-encompassing assessment of an institution, they do provide helpful guideposts for prospective students searching for the right fit. For instance, U.S. News’ rankings can tell you that out of the 209 best public schools, UAlbany ranks a respectable 77th; out of the 176 best universities in the northern region, Siena ranks 15th; and out of the 388 best national universities, RPI tied for 53rd overall. Other publications have their own methodologies for ranking colleges, such as Condé Nast Traveler, which last year named Siena one of the 50 most beautiful college campuses in the country, while The Princeton Review this year ranked Skidmore the top pot-smoking campus in its The Best 386 Colleges guidebook (the ranking was based on actual survey data).

All rankings aside, one of the most important decision-drivers among prospective students is a college’s location—“Not only do students want to be comfortable with the campus, but they want to be comfortable with the surrounding territory,” says Katie Szalda, the director of admissions at Siena. “That’s why we’re so fortunate in the Capital Region. It’s beautiful. Students can come, they can hike, they can ski, they can do all the things that they love to do.” Current Saint Rose senior Megan Mayer, who grew up just outside of  Syracuse, concurs. “I think Albany itself has a lot to offer,” she says. “Downtown is so pretty, and there’s a lot to do. And the little outskirt towns are so cute. Getting a city feel but also being able to drive 20 minutes and being by farms and going apple picking is fun.”

Regardless of the Capital Region’s aesthetics, Skarlis, the prospective student coach, has noticed a trend among Gen Z-ers: They’re tending towards attending colleges in larger cities. “Over the last 10 or 15 years, everyone has wanted to be in a city, including my own son,” Skarlis says. “I did a tour of Siena a few years ago. At the end of my tour, one of my staffers said to the tour guide, ‘Gee, it seems like you really love this place,’ and she said, ‘I do.’” The staffer then asked the tour guide if there was one thing she’d change about Siena. Her response? She’d move it to Boston. “So that’s a tough thing for these schools to overcome,” Skarlis says, “and I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

Indeed, the nation’s smaller liberal arts colleges are facing the challenge of a generation. Overall undergraduate enrollment has declined by about 1.5 million students since the late aughts, but it’s the colleges without major endowments, which rely heavily on money from tuition and room and board, that are feeling the brunt of the pressure. And the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. More and more students are now choosing to attend college remotely—or simply, not at all. “I know Saint Rose stopped leasing one of its dorm halls this year,” says Mayer, “because there’s a similar amount of freshman enrolled as normal, but not as many living on campus.”

Siena, on the other hand, seems to be bucking the trend, having just welcomed in its largest freshman class for the third year in a row. That’s thanks, in part, to new recruitment techniques, such as COVID-friendly drive-through college tours and virtual tours online, says Szalda. Skidmore, too, had its largest freshman class ever in 2020. “On the one hand, COVID has taught us effective, efficient ways to do things through virtual means,” Skidmore President Marc C. Conner told me back in May. But conner also sees another effect of the pandemic; “COVID has reinforced how much people want this kind of in-person education. Even in the midst of COVID, more people are seeking out this intimate, highly engaged, in-person learning model.”

Whether college enrollment is booming or busting, one thing is certainly apparent: Colleges have a monumental financial and cultural impact on the communities they’re located in. Take Albany, for instance. In a 2018 study, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission reported that UAlbany’s annual economic impact on the area was more than $1 billion, with the university employing 8,000 workers and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into local goods and services. That’s not to mention the $176 million spent on university-related construction projects and the $67 million generated from students spending dollars locally. And that doesn’t even factor in the effect alumni of Capital Region colleges and universities, who choose to stick around after graduation, have on the area. Long Island native Gavin McIntyre, an RPI alum, is just one example, having founded Green Island’s Ecovative Design, which uses the root structure of mushrooms to create foam products, clothing, leather, cardboard and even plant-based foods. His designs could be nothing short of world-changing.

One last thing that college students bring to the Capital Region that’s not so cut and dry? “Vibrancy,” Szalda says. “You go into Albany, you go up to Saratoga, and you see college students out. You see these great connections, you see great nightlife. I think it’s so much fun to see the energy and excitement that college students bring to our town.” So is the Capital Region peppered with some of the greatest college towns in the country? You don’t need a 4.0 GPA to answer that one.      


 

 

Union College
Schenectady

Founded
1795

Tuition/Fees
$59,427

Student Body
2,189

Size
100 acres

Acceptance Rate
43%

Student/Faculty Ratio
10:1

Mascot
Dutchman

Notable Alumni

President Chester A. Arthur

President Jimmy Carter, who attended but didn’t graduate

Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn

Producer Robert Chartoff (Rocky)

Fun Facts

Scenes from 1973’s Oscar-winning Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford drama The Way We Were were filmed on campus.

Union’s Nott Memorial is one of the only 16-sided buildings in the world.

The Union Dutchmen ice hockey team won the NCAA Division I National Championship in 2014.

 

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)
Troy

Founded
1825

Tuition/Fees
$57,012

Student Body
7,617

Size
296 acres

Acceptance Rate
47%

Student/Faculty Ratio
12:1

Mascot
Engineer/Puckman

Notable Alumni

Director Bobby Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber)

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. (inventor of the Ferris wheel)

New England Patriots senior football advisor (and three-time Super Bowl champ) Matt Patricia

Fun Facts

Lee Sheldon, associate professor and co-director of RPI’s Games and Simulation Arts program, has written and designed more than 20 video games; Sheldon also wrote for and produced TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Charlie’s Angels.

Professor Ivar Giaever co-won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics for his “discoveries regarding tunnelling phenomena in solids.”

 

The College of Saint Rose
Albany

Founded
1920

Tuition/Fees
$34,354

Student Body
4,004

Size
49 acres

Acceptance Rate
87%

Student/Faculty Ratio
14:1

Mascot
Golden Knight

Notable Alumni

The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon

Kyle Griffin, senior producer of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell

Fun Facts

The Cold Case Analysis Center at Saint Rose, in which students can work on real-life cold cases, is the only one of its kind in New York State and one of just six in the US.

The Morris Hall dorm building used to be a convent and is purported to be haunted.

The women’s soccer team won the Division II NCAA National Championship in 2011.

 

Siena College
Loudonville

Founded
1937

Tuition/Fees
$39,500

Student Body
3,299

Size
175 acres

Acceptance Rate
81%

Student/Faculty Ratio
12:1

Mascot
Bernie the “Saint” Bernard

Notable Alumni

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist William Kennedy (Ironweed)

Actor Joseph Cali (Saturday Night Fever)

Fun Facts

Tradition dictates that students always hold the door open no matter how far away the next person is or how long they have to hold it for.

Students celebrate Kentucky Derby Day with a two-person piggyback race, in which one person is the “horse” and the other is the “jockey.”

Therapy dogs are brought to campus from the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society to help relieve students’ stress before midterms.

 

Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs

Founded
1903

Tuition/Fees
$58,128

Student Body
2,663

Size
890 acres

Acceptance Rate
30%

Student/Faculty Ratio
8:1

Mascot
Thoroughbred

Notable Alumni

Actress Zazie Beetz (Atlanta)

Actor Michael Zegen (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel)

Actor Jon Bernthal, who didn’t graduate (The Walking Dead)

Former Oscar-winning child actor Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer)

WWE wrestler Spike Dudley

Former Vogue Editor in Chief Grace Mirabella

Fun Facts

Professor Sheldon Solomon co-invented the Saratoga-famous snack, the “Oboy,” that’s sold at Esperanto.

Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey have both served as commencement speakers and received honorary degrees from the college.

 

Russell Sage College
Troy/Albany

Founded
1916

Tuition/Fees
$32,950

Student Body
2,448

Size
19 acres

Acceptance Rate
85%

Student/Faculty Ratio
12:1

Mascot
Gator

Notable Alumni

Former US ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala Prudence Bushnell

Former deputy director of the NSA Ann Z. Caracristi

Fun Facts

The movie The Age of Innocence filmed scenes in Sage dorm houses.

The college actually has two campuses—a female-only one in Troy and a co-educational one in Albany. Male students from the Albany campus can take classes in Troy, though.

 

State University of New York at Albany
Albany

Founded
1844

Tuition/Fees
$10,236 (in state)
$27,826 (out of state)

Student Body
17,544

Size
610 acres

Acceptance Rate
54%

Student/Faculty Ratio
18:1

Mascot
Damien the Great Dane

Notable Alumni

Author Gregory Maguire (Wicked)

Gay rights icon and politician Harvey Milk

Public radio talk show host Brian Lehrer

Actor Steve Guttenberg (Three Men and a Baby)

Fun Facts

In 1985, responding to charges that UAlbany students lacked school spirit, the Student Association organized the world’s largest game of musical chairs (it lasted for four hours and 35 minutes).

The university served as the summer training camp for the NFL’s New York Giants for 16 years.

Former University at Albany President Robert Jones won a Grammy with his college ensemble, Sounds of Blackness.

Natalie Moore
Natalie Moore is the director of content at Capital Region Living and Saratoga Living.

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