Pennsylvania Higher Ed System Sees Enrollment Drop 3 Years in a Row

Enrollment figures for Pennsylvania’s higher education system are troubling both educators and politics as they indicate a drop in applications and matriculation for the last 3 years.

This is a worrying trend because the universities are financially constrained — they depend on tuition dollars — and a drop in the number of students is only making budgets tighter. 12 of the 14 state-owned universities have shown losses in the number of students for the third year in a row.

Bill Schackner of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the total number of students system-wide is at 122,315, which is 2.1% lower from last year and 6% lower than in 2010. These numbers are significant in scale, and authorities have noticed. Now they need to come up with a plan to reverse this trend.

With this fall’s losses, six system schools now have seen double-digit declines over three years, chief among them Cheyney University, which has lost nearly 24 percent of its student population since 2010; Edinboro University, down almost 18 percent since 2010; and Clarion University, where enrollment has fallen just under 17 percent during those years.

Some officials predicted that the number of people enrolling would decrease simply because the number of graduates has decreased. Furthermore, they predict that the figures will not rebound until 2020.

However, even though this year’s enrollment decline was smaller than that of last year, it is still bigger than what was expected — and faulty projections have budget implications and call into question long-term plans for individual campuses and the system overall.

The combination of fewer students, decreased funding, increased campus costs and a slow economy has resulted in a dire financial situation of the higher education system.

Fewer students, a recent 18 percent cut in the system’s state appropriation and rising campus costs in a sluggish economy have created what system leaders in recent months have described as “a perfect storm” financially, including a $50 million budget shortfall this year alone.

During a board meeting, system administrators discussed the need for funding to be diverted from those universities where the enrollment figures are low to Pennsylvania’s programs focusing on future workforce requirements. Frank Brogan, the new chancellor of the state system, put forward ideas on how to get more funding from the state even though the economy is weak.

He said he is open to the concept of allowing certain academic programs to carry higher tuition prices than others, but added, “I believe in a concept more like walk before you run.”

He suggested perhaps a pilot involving one or more programs so as to avoid unintended consequences.