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Pa.'s college numbers down

| Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016, 9:27 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
A graduate looks back at the stands where family and friends are seated during Carnegie Mellon University's commencement at Gesling Stadium on the school's campus in Oakland on Sunday, May 15, 2016.
Brian F. Henry | For The Tribune-Review
St. Vincent College graduates attend the school's 2016 Commencement ceremony inside the Robert S. Carey Student Center at Saint Vincent College on Saturday, May 7, 2016.

College enrollment fell for the fifth consecutive year nationwide, according to figures released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit that works with colleges and universities across the country.

Pennsylvania is among the five states experiencing the largest decline in enrollment, having lost more than 18,000 students since fall of 2015. New York saw the biggest change in enrollment during the past year, where colleges and universities collectively lost more than 30,000 students.

All colleges and universities worry about drops in enrollment: fewer students mean less money in tuition and fees coming through the door. Less money in the budget makes it harder to keep a school running and provide academic programs and services students expect.

And students aren't the only ones who suffer when a school is forced to cut back. Smaller operating budgets make it harder for schools to keep staff and faculty employed.

"Sometimes, it translates to staff reductions or program cancellations," said Paul-James Cukanna, vice president for enrollment management at Duquesne University, a private Catholic school in Pittsburgh. "That's the reality of the market."

Undergraduate enrollment at Duquesne — 9,403 — actually increased 1 percent this fall as the school welcomed the largest freshman class in the history of the university. But Cukanna said enrollment is still a concern. It takes work to keep those numbers up, and, like most of the colleges and universities in the area, Duquesne is working to find ways to stay competitive.

California University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 state-owned schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, had a total enrollment this fall of 7,553, down from 7,854 the previous year and from 9,483 in fall of 2011. The Washington County university has reduced staff in the past year as administrators pointed to a declining pool of Pennsylvania high school graduates.

The state is home to 257 institutions of higher education, including public, nonprofit private and for-profit colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

High school enrollment in Western Pennsylvania continues to decrease — these days there are simply fewer high school-aged children compared to when the millennial generation was in high school — so the competition to attract students to schools in the region is fierce.

As a result, schools such as Westmoreland County's Seton Hill University and St. Vincent College are looking to maintain enrollment by recruiting outside the community. One way to do that is to market a school's strengths, said Suzanne English, vice president for admission, marketing and communication at St. Vincent — a private Benedictine liberal arts school in Unity with enrollment this fall of 1,836.

"One of the keys for us, as well as other institutions, is to determine what you can do better than anyone else," English said.

Both institutions say offering appealing academic programs that give students bang for their buck — in the form of job placement after graduation — is likely to draw students in.

Both also have made an effort to expand majors in subject areas that prepare students for high-demand career paths in the real world by investing in fields such as medicine and computer science.

For example, Greensburg's Seton Hill, a private Catholic liberal arts university with a 2016 enrollment of 2,200, announced a cyber security major this semester. "And that's going along with what's going on in the real world," said Brett Freshour, vice president for enrollment management.

Community colleges are similarly able to adapt to the changing needs of the workforce. But the challenges those schools face when it comes to maintaining enrollment can't be solved by recruiting students from different areas, according to Tuesday Stanley, president of Westmoreland County Community College.

"We're not like a university that has a residential experience that could draw from a larger geographic base," Stanley said.

Students attending community college typically do not live on campus. About 97 percent of WCCC students live and work in the community, according to Stanley.

Overall, postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.4 percent from fall 2015, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report said. The biggest enrollment decline occurred among four-year, for-profit institutions, which dropped 14.5 percent.

That was because of concerns about accreditation and accountability, according to Jason DeWitt, research manager for the center. Four-year, private nonprofit institutions experienced a decline of 0.6 percent in enrollment, while total public sector enrollment (two-year and four-year institutions combined) declined by 1 percent.


Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or jmartines@tribweb.com.

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