The Independent Sector Advantage

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to higher education, as the best college choice depends on individual needs and priorities. New York’s collection of independent institutions is the largest in the country, with over 100 nonprofit institutions to choose from. The Independent Sector includes campuses that are defined by history and tradition; diverse missions and programs; strong academics and research; urban, suburban, and rural locations; and enrollment sizes that range from less than 100 to nearly 60,000 students.

New York’s independent institutions are each different in many ways, but there are a few elements that they share: generous financial aid, small class sizes, personal attention, distinguished faculty, unparalleled experiential learning opportunities, strong global alumni networks, and unmatched support services to help students complete their studies and thrive.

Here are some advantages of independent nonprofit colleges and universities in New York State:

New York’s independent colleges and universities enroll 44 percent (or, nearly 500,000) of the 1.1 million students enrolled in postsecondary education in New York State. Among the Independent Sector’s undergraduate and graduate students:

  • 55% are New York residents 
  • 32% are from other states 
  • 13% are international students
  • On average, 29% of entering undergrads are first-generation students
  • The Independent Sector enrolls about one-third (34%) of all students of color attending two-year and four-year colleges and universities in New York State. This also includes… 

    • 31% of the Black or African American students in the state 
    • 31% of Hispanic students in the state 
    • 40% of Asian students in the state 
    • 49% of students who identify with two or more races in the state
  • New York is the top destination for first-time students who leave their home state to attend a private, nonprofit college or university.
    • In fall 2022, nearly 25,000 first-time students from other states enrolled at an Independent Sector institution in New York (MA is second with 19,000 and PA is third with 18,000).

Independent institutions often have lower student-to-faculty ratios, leading to smaller class sizes and more opportunities for professors to interact with students individually. This can translate to more personalized guidance, mentorship, and feedback. Independent colleges and universities have the lowest average student-to-faculty ratios for undergraduates when compared to New York’s other sectors of higher education.

  • Independent: 11 to 1
  • SUNY: 15 to 1
  • CUNY: 15 to 1
  • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 19 to 1

While some independent institutions often have higher sticker prices than public universities, they tend to offer more generous financial aid packages, including merit-based scholarships and need-based grants. This can make them more affordable for some students, especially those with high academic achievement or financial need.

  • Independent Sector colleges in New York gave students $7.7 billion in financial aid from their own resources last year.
  • Eighty-six percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students enrolled in these institutions receive some type of student aid.
  • The average net cost at four-year private nonprofit colleges in New York is $28,953 (average net cost is tuition, fees, room, and board after student aid is applied to the total cost of attendance). When adjusted for inflation, the average net cost is virtually unchanged over the past decade.
  • In 2022-23, there were 53,300 undergraduate TAP recipients in the Independent Sector. In total, these students were awarded $160 million.

Many independent intuitions have specific academic strengths or unique programs that may not be available at public or proprietary (i.e., for-profit) institutions. This could include specialized research opportunities, study abroad opportunities, or ROTC programs.

  • Study abroad programs provide many advantages for students. Immersion in a new culture challenges perspectives and helps students develop a deeper understanding of the world beyond their own experiences. Seventy-four of the 116 four-year colleges and universities in New York that offer study abroad programs are private nonprofit institutions.
    • Independent: 74 institutions (64% of total)
    • SUNY: 26 institutions (22% of total)
    • CUNY: 11 institutions (9% of total)
    • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 5 institutions (4% of total)
  • ROTC programs offer a range of potential advantages, attracting individuals for various reasons. For those with an interest in making this commitment, the benefits include scholarships, leadership training, professional development, and personal growth. Forty-five of the 64 four-year colleges and universities in New York that offer ROTC programs are private nonprofit institutions.
    • Independent: 45 institutions (70% of total)
    • SUNY: 16 institutions (25% of total)
    • CUNY: 2 institutions (3% of total)
    • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 1 institution (2% of total)

The Independent Sector offers more bachelor’s and graduate programs than the other sectors combined:

  • Bachelor’s programs across all campuses:
    • Independent: 3,457
    • SUNY: 1,421
    • CUNY: 860
    • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 68
  • Graduate programs across all campuses:
    • Independent: 2,845
    • SUNY: 1,216
    • CUNY: 645
    • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 51

Independent colleges and universities award nearly 60% of the bachelor’s and graduate degrees earned by students in New York State (134,000 of 231,000 total bachelor’s and graduate degrees). This includes:

  • 49% of bachelor’s degrees
  • 72% of master’s degrees
  • 78% of doctoral degrees

In addition, these institutions award a significant share of New York’s bachelor’s and graduate degrees in critical fields, such as:

  • Education – 55%
  • Nursing – 67%
  • STEM fields – 61%
  • Mental Health – 48%

Occupations that require more education are projected to grow faster than those that require little or no education. For example, occupations that require a bachelor’s degree are projected to grow by 7% between 2022 and 2032.

  • Projected growth, all occupations: 3% 
  • Doctoral or professional degree: 7% 
  • Master’s degree: 11% 
  • Bachelor’s degree: 7% 
  • Associate degree: 6% 

Using CICU’s recent research on transfer students at independent institutions in New York State…

  • Sixty-nine percent of transfer students entered a four-year independent institution with an associate degree. Among these students…
    • Seventy percent earned an associate degree in Liberal Arts
    • Sixteen percent earned an associate degree in Business/Business Administration
    • Ten percent earned as associate degree in Computer Science/Information Technology
  • Most transfer students feel welcomed and supported by their four-year institution and agree that their overall transfer experience has met or exceeded their expectations.

Independent colleges and universities are incubators for breakthrough research that impacts our lives every day. Campus R&D spending supports medical research areas such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes; and technology such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and advanced materials. R&D spending supports students, faculty, and researchers as they push the boundaries of knowledge, which has a direct benefit for society.

  • New York State ranks #2 in the U.S. for higher education R&D spending with $8.3 billion. California is #1 with $12.1 billion.
  • In fiscal year 2021-22, 79% of New York State’s college and university R&D spending was done by independent institutions ($6.5 billion of $8.3 billion).
  • A catalyst for innovation, independent institutions lead in the production of technology licensing, patents, and start-ups, which helps to connect students and faculty in a way that stimulates innovation and inspires students to convert their ideas into action.
    • Licenses and Options Executed:
      • Independent: 520 (89%)
      • SUNY: 67 (11%)
    • New U.S. Patent Applications Filed:
      • Independent: 740 (86%)
      • SUNY: 120 (14%)
    • U.S. Patents Issued:
      • Independent: 326 (78%)
      • SUNY: 92 (22%)
    • Start-Ups Formed:
      • Independent: 53 (78%)
      • SUNY: 15 (22%)

New York State’s independent colleges and universities have the highest retention rates among four-year institutions in New York. Eighty-five percent of students who began their studies in fall 2021 returned for classes in fall 2022.

  • Independent: 85%
  • SUNY: 80%
  • CUNY: 75%
  • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 77%

First-time students who pursue bachelor’s degrees in the Independent Sector complete their degrees at higher rates than students in other sectors, which allows them to begin their careers or graduate studies earlier.

  • The four-year graduation rate for students who began their studies in 2015 was 62.8% in the Independent Sector, which is higher than the four-year rate for other sectors:
    • Independent: 62.8%
    • SUNY: 55.3%
    • CUNY: 29.2%
    • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 50.6%
  • The six-year graduation rate for students who began their studies in 2015 was 74.3% in the Independent Sector, which is higher than the six-year rate for other sectors:
    • Independent: 74.3%
    • SUNY: 67.3%
    • CUNY: 54.6%
    • Proprietary (i.e., for-profit): 61.2%
  • The Independent Sector’s six-year graduation rate also exceeds the national six-year graduation rate for all sectors, 64%.

Nearly all of the Independent Sector’s two-year and four-year degree-granting institutions are either… 

  • Test blind (test scores are not considered for admission, even if submitted, 15%)
  • Test optional (test scores are not required for admission, but considered if submitted, 76%)
  • Or, they have an open admissions policy and accept all applicants (8%)
  • Only 1% require test scores for acceptance consideration

New York’s independent colleges and universities are major employers, purchasers of goods and services, and builders. Many of these institutions are the primary employers in the communities in which they reside. These campuses are among the state’s strongest economic engines.

  • Total economic impact of Independent Sector in New York: $94.8 billion
  • Total direct campus and spillover jobs supported by Independent Sector in New York: 403,000, with a total payroll of $29.6 billion

Beyond the numbers and economic models, another picture emerges: The future of New York State’s vitality – an unmistakable energy that finds its source in knowledge and education. Within the Independent Sector lies a driving market force for a world that increasingly values the creation, acquisition, and distribution of knowledge.

Independent colleges often have smaller, more tightly-knit alumni communities, which can translate into stronger career support networks and access to professional opportunities. This can be valuable for graduates seeking jobs or internships in specific fields.

  • There are at least 5.2 million living alumni of Independent Sector colleges and universities.
  • Forty percent (or, 2.04 million) live in New York State, and 60% (or, 3.12 million) live out-of-state.

Reports and Perspectives

CICU also produces reports and research to support data-driven advocacy for our member colleges and universities and to provide policymakers with the data they need to make informed decisions.

Recent reports issued by CICU include:

Earlier this year, CICU authored a report to dispel myths and misconceptions about endowments. Educating policymakers on the types of endowments and activities supported by endowment spending such as student aid, academic programs, research, and public service can help promote a more informed discussion about the role of endowments in higher education. 

Download the report here.

Independent colleges and universities in New York State contribute to the social and intellectual well-being of their surrounding communities. In total, these institutions spend more than $600 million on public service activities annually.

Download the report here.

In fall 2023, CICU authored a report to express concern about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to ban the consideration of race in college admissions. We believe that the Supreme Court ruling is a major setback in ensuring that higher education is accessible to all. 

Download the report here.

New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) was founded in 1974 and is by far the largest and most impactful student aid program in the state. However, the program has not kept pace with inflation and serves fewer students today than in 1974. CICU authored a report to illustrate the challenges and propose solutions.

Download the report here.


Check out our latest data visualizations!

This dashboard displays New York State Assembly, Senate, and Congressional districts as of 2022 and any colleges and universities within them. Main and branch campuses of private and public institutions are included. Districts without institutions are also included.

Open Dashboard

Our campus profiles dashboard provides useful information about each of the 100+ CICU member institutions.

Open Dashboard

to top