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Pennsylvania’s state universities record biggest one-year enrollment decline in more than a decade

PASSHE’s enrollment fell to 88,651, down 5.4%, or more than 5,000 students. Since 2010, when the system had nearly 120,000 students, enrollment has plunged nearly 26%.

PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein.
PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services

Enrollment this fall at Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities showed its biggest one-year percentage decline in more than a decade, coming amid a pandemic-related dive in college population nationally.

But for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which has been weathering an enrollment decline since 2010 and is in the process of merging six of its universities, the downturn is particularly painful and could lead to more cuts and job loss.

“It looks like we’re having our pandemic impact this year as opposed to last,” said Daniel Greenstein, system chancellor. “I think the students that we serve have been more impacted.”

» READ MORE: Board oks controversial plan to merge six universities into two

PASSHE’s enrollment fell to 88,651, down 5.4%, or more than 5,000 students, from last year — that’s about a $36 million loss in revenue, according to the system.

Since 2010, when system enrollment approached 120,000, most one-year declines have been 2% or 3%, but enrollment has dropped a total of nearly 26% during that time. This year’s drop reflects both fewer freshmen and fewer upperclassmen who returned, a system spokesperson said.

In addition to the pandemic, state system and faculty officials cite other potential reasons for the drop: attendance costs, an erosion of state funding over decades, fewer high school students nationally, and fallout from the planned merger of Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield into one university and Clarion, California, and Edinboro into another.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania plans to merge six universities. But some fear a 'slow death' for troubled schools

Nationally, higher-education enrollment fell to 16.9 million last spring, down from 17.5 million a year earlier, largely due to continued disruption from the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That decline of 3.5% was seven times worse than a year earlier, the center said.

But these drops have not been evenly distributed. Elite universities and prominent state flagships appear to be doing better. Less selective schools serving more students from lower-income families, who may have taken more of a pandemic hit, seem to be struggling a bit more.

“COVID has had a real impact on the low-income, first-generation students of color — there’s no question about that,” said Mildred Garcia, president and CEO of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, of which PASSHE schools are members.

And, she said, state schools tend to serve larger numbers of those students. Garcia said she didn’t have any firm fall data to share but said anecdotally it seems schools in rural areas, as many PASSHE schools are, seem to be having a harder time. Some schools have seen students taking fewer classes because they have to work, she added.

Locally, other schools are feeling a pinch.

At Temple University, overall enrollment including undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs is down 3.9%, or 1,465 students, said spokesperson Steve Orbanek. The undergraduate enrollment drop is a bit steeper, at 4.5%. That is largely due to the pandemic, more students graduating in four years, and smaller entering classes in recent years, Orbanek said, though this year’s freshman class saw an increase.

Even Rowan University, ranked by the Chronicle of Higher Education this year as the fifth-fastest-growing research university in the country, saw a decline in enrollment for the first time in more than a decade. The New Jersey university enrolled 19,080 students this fall, down by 3%, or 598 students, from last year.

Undergraduate enrollment at Pennsylvania State University is up 2% at its main campus in University Park, but residential undergraduate enrollment at its other campuses is down 7.5%, said spokesperson Lisa Powers. The drop at those campuses is due in large part to students choosing to take all their classes online through Penn State World Campus, she said.

» READ MORE: Penn State expanded its branch campuses decades ago. Now, some say that’s one reason state universities are struggling.

Villanova University, one of the more selective universities in the region, kept enrollment steady as it has intentionally done for decades. Drexel University, which starts the fall semester later than most other universities, said it didn’t yet have data.

In the Pennsylvania state system, some universities did better than others. Cheyney, a historically Black university that had struggled for years with enrollment and finances, showed slight growth, along with Mansfield, one of the universities slated for merger. West Chester, the biggest in the system with more than 17,000 students, stayed virtually flat, with year-over-year enrollment down fewer than 100 students.

The biggest declines came at East Stroudsburg University, which enrolled 706 fewer students — a 12% drop over last year — and Clarion, one of the merger schools, which enrolled 543 fewer students, also a 12% drop.

East Stroudsburg said the pandemic limited the school’s ability to interact with high school students, counselors and families, a crucial ingredient for dealing with first-generation college students who make up 26% of the university’s population. The school also cited financial hardships for families.

“Staffing changes within the office of admission, rising educational costs and insufficient institutional and state aid also contributed to this decline,” the school said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, ESU will be announcing several new initiatives to help address college affordability and access.”

» READ MORE: Projected first-year enrollment down at Pennsylvania's state universities

Four of the six universities slated for merger — Bloomsburg, Clarion, Edinboro, and Lock Haven — saw a higher percentage decline than the system overall. The mergers drew heavy criticism and protest from some students, faculty, and alumni at public hearings earlier this year, and some faculty predicted the uncertainty around integration would hurt enrollment.

Greenstein said it’s hard to draw a direct line to any one cause.

“I don’t think we do ourselves any favor by exposing that level of aggression internally to our constituencies,” he said.

Greenstein also surmised that the cost of attending the state universities, even though the system has kept tuition frozen for the last three years, continues to drive down enrollment. The average cost of attendance at state system schools in 2020-21 ranged from $19,243 at West Chester to $25,714 at Indiana.

The system has seen the deepest drop-off in students from families earning less than $75,000, Greenstein said.

“Our biggest challenge is we’re too expensive,” he said.

And, he said, the large number of available jobs may have lured some prospective students to postpone college.

Jamie Martin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, cited similar reasons for the drop as Greenstein and emphasized the impact of the mergers.

“I think the consolidation led to a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

She added that students probably didn’t want to take a chance of having remote classes for another year, given the ongoing threat from the coronavirus.

The drop in enrollment likely will mean more job loss as the system adjusts to fewer students and less revenue, Greenstein said. But the mergers are expected to eventually result in enrollment growth, and the state gave the system an additional $50 million last year with a promise of $150 million more over the next several years, which should help, too, he said.

And Greenstein said he is hopeful enrollment will bounce back next year.

“I’m optimistic that we will,” he said.