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Assembly Standing Committee on Higher Education

Testimony of Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D.
President, St. John’s University, NY
Wednesday November 30, 2016
Assembly Standing Committee on Higher Education
Subcommittee on Tuition Assistance Program

Thank you, Laura, for that introduction.

Honored Chair-Assembly Member Deborah Glick-and distinguished members of the Higher Education Committee, my name is Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw.  It is my privilege to serve as the 17th President of St. John’s University, the third largest Catholic university in the United States with over 20,000 students and the largest Catholic university in New York State with campuses in Queens and Staten Island, and a Manhattan campus at 101 Astor Place, proudly located in the 66th Assembly District so ably represented by Assembly Member Glick.  St. John’s also has locations in Oakdale, Long Island; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Seville, Spain.

From our humble beginnings 146 years ago, St. John’s University was founded in 1870 by the Vincentians upon the request of the then Bishop of Brooklyn to provide the underprivileged youth of the city with an intellectual and moral education.  Historically, St. John’s is known for its mission of providing access to higher education to students who are most in need.  This singular mission continues to guide the University and today, I am here to share with you how we, at St. John’s University, have taken bold initiatives to stem the rising costs of higher education.

In January 2015, just six months after I arrived on campus as a new president, we announced a historic freeze in tuition, fees, and room and board costs for all current and incoming full and part-time undergraduate and graduate students at our Queens, Manhattan and international campuses for the 2015-16 academic year.  At our Staten Island Campus, we went a step further by decreasing undergraduate tuition by $10,370 dollars.

Why did we do this?  Our mission is to provide a quality and affordable education for all, especially to those who would otherwise not have the opportunity to pursue higher education.  We are very much aware of the significant financial challenges facing college students and their families.  I am constantly reminded of these challenges because I receive many requests from students and parents pleading for financial assistance.  We have an obligation to efficiently manage our resources and control the rising cost of a college education while serving a diverse and high financial need student population in the most expensive and competitive higher education market in the country.

In the past, almost half of our entering freshmen were Pell grant recipients.  Today, St. John’s accepts the highest percentage of Pell grant recipients, the most by far, among the top 20 national Catholic colleges and universities in America.   In 2015-16, 43 percent of our incoming freshmen were Pell grant recipients and this year close to 4,000 of our students are recipients of the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  More than 92 percent of our undergraduate students received close to $200 million in institutional aid during the past academic year.

It was not an easy decision to freeze or reduce tuition in our campuses. Taking this bold step required a commitment from the entire University community to reduce administrative expenses by selectively cutting or freezing salaries, cutting office budgets and increasing efficiency so we can pass on more than $14 million of tuition savings to our students.  We also implemented an ongoing university-wide process of evaluating our strategic and organizational priorities in order to find new and creative ways to ensure student success, to recruit, recognize and retain our best employees, to enhance our teaching and learning environment, and to expand community and global partnerships. 

Today, I am proud to state that our decision to freeze and reset tuition in 2015 at our campuses has yielded positive results. During the past two years, St. John’s has experienced a 16.5 percent increase in enrollment at our Queens campus with an average of 3,250 freshmen students enrolled each year, thus giving St. John’s the distinction of enrolling the largest entering freshmen cohort of any Catholic college or university in the country and the third largest freshmen class of any private college or university in New York State. We also have the distinction of enrolling the largest number of freshmen coming from the state of New York, more than any other private university or college in the state.

At our Staten Island Campus where we decreased tuition, enrollment has increased by over 53 percent from last year and marks the highest enrollment at that campus in more than six years.

Across the nation about one-third of freshmen students do not return for their sophomore year.  As a result, those students who drop out are saddled with college loan debt without the benefit of completing a degree.  Many colleges and universities across the nation are faced with this challenge of low retention and graduation rates.

We are pleased to report that with the primary goal of ensuring student success, St. John’s has seen a marked improvement in our freshmen retention rates which increased by five percentage points to 84 percent this year, a retention rate that we have not achieved for almost two decades.  Equally important, our recent graduates reported a 94 percent placement rate in terms of employment or acceptance at graduate schools within six months of graduation. 

The landscape of higher education is changing rapidly and requires developing strategies that are innovative and responsive to meet the needs of students and their families.  We, at St. John’s University, are committed to doing our part to make college education affordable to students of all backgrounds and will do our best to ensure student success so that they remain in school and eventually graduate to become productive citizens in our city, state and country.

I want to thank you for the opportunity to participate in this hearing on “The Rising Costs of Higher Education and Student Loan Debt in New York State”.  On behalf of the entire St. John’s University community, I pledge our support and commitment to your efforts to make  higher education more accessible, affordable, and accountable throughout the Empire State. 

Thank you again for allowing me this time and testimony.