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Projected first-year enrollment down at Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities

A total of 17,277 students paid deposits to attend the universities, compared to 17,583 last year, a decline of 1.7 percent. Some other universities in the region have reported declines, too.

West Chester University's campus.
West Chester University's campus.Read moreEmily Cohen/for The Inquirer

First-year students who paid deposits to attend Bloomsburg University this fall declined 19% from last year, the steepest decline of the 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s state system.

Mansfield and East Stroudsburg Universities also showed declines greater than 10%, according to a breakdown released by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education on Thursday.

Overall, 17,277 students had paid deposits to attend the system’s 14 universities as of this week, compared with 17,583 at this time last year, a decline of 1.7%, said Dave Pidgeon, a spokesperson for the system.

And that’s because some schools saw large increases. Cheyney University, a historically black institution that has struggled with enrollment, led the way. It showed the largest increase — 51% — in first-year students who paid deposits to attend in the fall, the system breakdown showed. Lock Haven and Kutztown also each showed an increase greater than 10%.

“Obviously, there is an impact from the pandemic,” Pidgeon said, referring to the overall decline.

But factors including an ongoing decline in high school graduates also continue to be pressure points, he said. The 96,000-student system has lost more than 20% of its enrollment since 2010 and is in the middle of a redesign.

Pidgeon said he did not have numbers on how many returning students planned to attend this fall. The American Council on Education has estimated fall enrollments nationwide could decline 15% because of the pandemic, including a 25% drop in international students.

» READ MORE: Reopening of Pennsylvania state universities will vary by campus

Daniel Greenstein, the Pennsylvania system’s chancellor, announced this week that the universities intended to open for in-person classes in the fall, but that the models would vary by campus. West Chester, the largest in the system, with more than 17,000 students, announced Thursday that it would open on time and conclude in-person classes before Thanksgiving. Faculty office hours and advising will be conducted remotely, and the university will stagger personnel on campus to allow for social distancing. West Chester reported a 3.7% increase in deposits for fall.

Pidgeon noted that many of the schools have rolling admission and will continue to accept applications. Systemwide, completed applications are down 6.3% this year. They also varied by school. East Stroudsburg showed the sharpest decline, 31.7%, while California had the biggest increase in applications, 26.5%.

Schools also will have to contend with changes in student plans over the summer as the impact of the coronavirus continues and the financial toll mounts.

» READ MORE: Colleges holding on-campus classes in the fall? Maybe.

“A lot of families are waiting to make a decision, and understandably so,” Pidgeon said. “They are facing a lot of uncertainty.”

Many schools in the region extended their usual May 1 deposit deadline until June 1, and some are still accepting deposits.

“In the current environment, with so much uncertainty caused by the pandemic, we expect more activity during the summer than usual,” said Mary Allen, a spokesperson at Widener University in Chester, which reported a drop in freshman deposits and an increase in deposits from transfer students.

Some universities, including Villanova and Temple, said they reached their enrollment goal for the fall. Pennsylvania State University reported that as of last Friday, new-student undergraduate enrollment for the summer/fall class was 16,744, less than a 1% increase over last year, but cautioned that numbers could fluctuate. That’s better than projections seemed last month, when the school said it was 6.8% behind.

» READ MORE: As student deposits for fall lag, colleges extend deadlines; New Jersey universities look to keep students in state

Other colleges continued to report lower numbers.

Stockton University in New Jersey reported that freshman deposits were down 4% from last year. That’s an improvement from early May, when they were running 17% behind. The school noted that deposits continue to come in and that graduate student deposits are up, as is summer enrollment.

Rutgers University, meanwhile, said last week that it had 9,653 first-year students who enrolled, down 3.3% from last year. That’s an improvement from last month, when deposits were down 6%. Transfer students also are down by 2.1%, said spokesperson Dory Devlin.