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College enrollment in Pittsburgh region on rise

The Pittsburgh area is attracting more college students.

The 25 local schools that award bachelor's degrees grew nearly 20 percent from 79,620 to 95,436 students between 1996-97 and the 2008-09 school years, according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research.

"Considering that the population hasn't grown, it's a pretty big deal," said Bob Grabeck, a project manager at Pitt's center. "It's a good sign that the future workforce will be more highly skilled than it has in the past."

Educators say the increase in college students also spurs the regional economy as schools hire more employees.

"More students means more students and parents spending," said Esther Barazzone, president of Chatham University. "It's most definitely an economic boon to the region."

The surge in college students comes despite a decline in high school seniors. The Pennsylvania Department of Education predicts the number of high school seniors in the state will plummet from 157,023 in 2007-08 to 137,384 in 2014-15, based on birth data and current school enrollment.

Colleges responded by drawing more students from out of state. In 1986-87, just 16.1 percent of the college students in the area hailed from outside Pennsylvania, according to the Pitt study. By 2008-09, that figure climbed to 26.7 percent for students elsewhere in the United States. Enrollment of foreign students during that period declined slightly from 1.7 percent to 1.4 percent.

Of the 25 schools in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, 19 posted increases from 1996-97 to 2008-09.

Carnegie Mellon University enjoyed the biggest increase in numbers. Its enrollment grew from 7,749 to 10,875 students, a gain of 3,126. CMU spokesman Ken Walters noted that 72 percent of that growth came from graduate students.

Chatham experienced the greatest percentage increase during the period, from 801 to 2,184 students. That's an increase of 172.7 percent.

Barazzone attributed Chatham's gain to the growth of its graduate programs. Of 2,184 students, more than half are in graduate school.

"We're one of the most graduate-intensive institutions around," she boasted. She predicted that Chatham eventually will enroll between 4,000 and 5,000 students as the Shadyside school develops its 388-acre Eden Hall campus in Richland.

Matt Long, 27, of Clarion is in the second year of a master's program in occupational therapy at Chatham. He chose the university because of its small classes and location in a medical hub like Pittsburgh.

"I love where I'm at and looking forward to going out in the real world and see if I can make a difference," he said.

Like Chatham, Seton Hill University more than doubled its enrollment, growing 116.3 percent from 965 to 2,087 students.

Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle credited its growth to opening up the entire university to men, the construction of its Performing Arts Center in downtown Greensburg and the addition of graduate programs, especially in the sciences.

"That decision to go coed has more than doubled the pool of students because there was a pool of female students who otherwise wouldn't have considered a school because it was single sex," she said. "Now, instead of having empty dorms, we built two dorms, which are filled to capacity, and we're ... contemplating another new dorm."

Anna Bevington, 21, of Delmont is a Seton Hill senior majoring in business and entrepreneurial studies. She likes the school's proximity to home, the small classes and accessibility of faculty.

"Once I came here, it was a done deal," she said.

Enrollments declined from 1996-97 to 2008-09 at six schools: Carlow University, La Roche College, Penn State Greater Allegheny, Penn State New Kensington, Robert Morris University and St. Vincent Seminary.

Ken Service, vice president for institutional relations at La Roche, attributed its decline of 217 students to changes in the Pacem in Terris program. It gives a free education to students from war-torn or developing nations.

"In about 2000, there were 300 Pacem in Terris students on campus," Service said. "Now we have three Pacem in Terris students currently here and four applicants for the fall."

Service said the program became self-sustaining in 2003 because the McCandless college couldn't afford to pay for so many students.

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