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Pennsylvania college enrollments suffer as high school grads dwindle

| Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, 12:25 a.m.

Fall enrollment declined for the second consecutive year in the network of 14 state-owned universities, mainly because of an ongoing decrease in high school graduates, officials said on Thursday.

The number of graduating high school seniors dipped 7 percent in spring, and about 9,500 fewer people joined the college-eligible pool, state figures show. The State System of Higher Education enrolled 3,440 fewer students this fall, a 2.9 percent decrease from 2011.

“You can look at those numbers and say this should be reason for concern. I'm saying, let's see what happens in 2013,” said state Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County, chairman of the House Education Committee.

Enrollment fell 1 percent from 2010 to 2011, the system's first drop after 14 years of growth.

Operated separately from state-related universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, the state-owned schools rely almost entirely on in-state students. Pennsylvanians make up about 90 percent of their undergraduate classes, making the schools more dependent on state population to sustain their numbers.

The “baby boomer echo effect” that fueled enrollment as boomers' children went to college has eased in the past several years, said Daniel Hurley, state relations director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington.

In Pennsylvania, state estimates show grade-school enrollment continuing to slow through 2015, a pattern that could influence college enrollment for some years afterward. The traditional college-age population in the state could slide 6 percent by 2025, according to a Penn State University report.

“We're doing everything we can to stay ahead with strategic planning,” said Karen Ball, vice chancellor for external relations for the state system.

Population shifts and sharp competition hit especially hard at several state-owned schools in Western Pennsylvania, officials said. California University of Pennsylvania experienced an enrollment decline of 9.2 percent this fall. At Edinboro University, the drop was 9.7 percent.

Ball said each university will decide how to handle declining revenue. Administrators at California University are looking “at everything across the board, in every department, to identify opportunities to save some money so we can continue to provide a high-quality education,” spokeswoman Christine Kindl said.

She declined to identify areas that might be cut but said layoffs do not appear likely.

Edinboro President Julie E. Wollman, in a statement, said the university anticipated the enrollment decline and prepared its budget with that in mind. The school is increasing an emphasis on recruitment and marketing and “expanding our reach beyond our traditional recruitment area,” she said.

A number of state-owned schools began reaching out to non-traditional students, such as returning adult students and veterans, Ball said.

Clymer speculated that robust enrollment in community colleges might reflect some migration away from four-year degree programs. A two-year moratorium on reimbursements for public school teachers who take college courses could be depressing the system's numbers, he said.

If the downward trend persists, Clymer said, the state might want to recruit more out-of-state students.

“I wouldn't say this is cause for significant alarm — yet,” Hurley said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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