NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — It’s the largest one-year drop ever in its college applications. The State University of New York system has lost a fifth of its prospective students.

Its chancellor says the drop off signals a time to rethink higher education, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported Tuesday.

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Delivering his state of the nation’s largest public university system, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said applications are down 20%.

“Education can secure the good life, but first we must overcome the confidence gap facing higher education,” Malatras said.

It’s a confidence gap that has been widened by the coronavirus pandemic. He said SUNY must modernize and offer more job retraining.

“Demystify the process and open up the process to include the 18-year-old coming out of high school and the 35-year-old single mother who just lost their job,” Malatras said.

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Falling enrollment is not only a SUNY problem, it’s a national one.

“We are looking at the impact of COVID-19 and the difficulty of online instruction on the resiliency of students. I’m worried we could lose a generation of young people who our country desperately needs to succeed,” Hofstra University education expert Dr. Alan Singer said.

Singer said COVID-related job losses, fear of eviction, and loss of income have families afraid to take on more debt.

A SUNY education is one of the least expensive in the nation, around $8,000 per year. Yet applications are down by more than 20,000.

Farmingdale State College has been bucking the trend by focusing on practical career training, programs like dental hygiene and lowering costs.

“We are very conscientious of the fees we charge. During COVID, students could actually come to Farmingdale for less then they would have paid in the fall of 2019,” Farmingdale President Dr. John Nader said.

Chancellor Malatras doesn’t want to do away with liberal arts education. It’s still vital to society, but he said SUNY can marry it with a more flexible career education in this COVID economy.

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Carolyn Gusoff