Enrollment slide reaches new low among Pennsylvania’s state universities

With integration of several institutions on the way, numbers continue to decline.
By: | October 12, 2021
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As the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education works to integrate some of its 14 universities—against public will and the pleas of some faculty members—data released this week highlights the struggles of its institutions to attract students.

Continuing a pattern of declines that has lasted for more than a decade, enrollment for 2021-22 fell again by more than 5,000 students overall to 88,651, the lowest total since the late 1980s.

Several universities that are set to be combined experienced steep drops, including California University of Pennsylvania (-5.4%) and Edinboro University (-6.4%). Even the ones that won’t be impacted by the consolidation, such as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (-7.5%) and Slippery Rock University (-5%), showed lower figures. At Slippery Rock, that reversed a trend in which it had gained a nominal number of students in 2020-21.

The collective declines, further exacerbated by the pandemic, means that the system has lost about 25% of its student base in the past 10 years. It is unclear what the fallout will be, although potential job cuts and program elimination have stoked fears at the six universities that are set to be merged into two new universities in western and northeast Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that tuition revenue is expected to fall off by $36 million.

“We suspect that we are finally seeing the COVID effect on enrollment that some expected to see last fall,” the PASSHE said in a statement. “Our universities continue to pursue aggressive enrollment management and recruiting strategies in response to the trends we are seeing around the country. At the same time, our System Redesign efforts are aimed at righting the ship, including growing enrollments, especially among groups of students that have been underserved.”

How Pennsylvania’s numbers stack up against enrollments at other state university systems across the nation should become clearer when the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center releases the first of its reports at the end of October. Last year, enrollment numbers were down about 2%, with spring data showing further losses. Public four-year institutions, however, did not see nearly the same declines as those at community colleges.

The Arkansas state university system, which is comprised of 11 institutions, has reported a 1.5% decline in enrollment for the fall but that was due to huge gains in undergraduates by the University of Arkansas (+6.4%) and Arkansas State University (+8.8%). The majority of its other smaller universities saw big drops, including Arkansas Tech (-11%) and Henderson State University (-8%) that were only offset because of large spikes in the number of graduate students.

“The recent enrollment growth of our graduate programs has been nothing short of remarkable,” University of Arkansas Pine Bluff Provost Robert Carr told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Our faculty and staff have worked extremely hard to design contemporary programs that appeal to today’s graduate student population.”

Graduate student numbers across the U.S. have been strong throughout the pandemic, while undergraduate numbers have failed to hit potential targets because more prospective freshmen from the high school Class of 2020 opted to not enter postsecondary education last fall.

The Board of Regents in Kansas, meanwhile, is reporting a 1% increase in enrollment across its 33 institutions that include technical and community colleges. As one source told University Business two weeks ago, numbers are likely to be all over the map, and that pattern is holding form in the Sunflower State. Some technical colleges are showing as much as 20% enrollment boosts for fall of 2021, while others are showing 10% declines. Even its public universities haven’t been insulated from the unsteadiness befalling higher education. For example, Wichita State University is up more than 3%, while Fort Hays University’s drop-off is more than 6%.

In Pennsylvania, its State Higher Education Board of Governors hopes integration will lead to more stability in terms of enrollment and student outcomes and the potential to gain back lost revenue while strengthening access. Along with the pandemic’s impact, a 10% decline in the number of individuals ages 15-24 in the state also has led to a downward trend in which enrollments have fallen from their peak of nearly 120,000 to less than 90,000. State funding also dropped more than 33% over a 10-year period that ended just prior to COVID-19, and budget cuts are affecting most state public institutions in the U.S. Employment headcount at Pennsylvania institutions has followed a similar-but-not-as-severe pattern as enrollment, dropping from a peak of 13,574 in 2008 to 11,478 in 2020.

The Northeast Integrated University will include Bloomberg, Lock Haven and Mansfield, while the Western Integrated University will be comprised of California, Clarion and Edinboro. The consolidation is expected to be completed by 2025-26. All of them posted enrollment losses for 2021-22.