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Pennsylvania colleges look elsewhere to overcome shortage, diversify

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, 9:50 p.m.
Yough High School graduates stand during the graduation ceremony on June 8, 2012 near Herminie.
Eric Schmadel  |  Tribune-Review
Yough High School graduates stand during the graduation ceremony on June 8, 2012 near Herminie. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

After decades of steady and predictable enrollment growth, Pennsylvania colleges and universities might need to cast wider nets to fill their classrooms.

Lower birth rates and migration from the state have driven down the numbers of graduates from public high schools, which hit a high of about 132,300 in 2008. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education expects the annual figure to slide about 9.3 percent by 2015, then stagnate through 2022.

“It's hard to say there will be a turnaround without some sort of influx” into Pennsylvania, said Catherine Tucker, a doctoral candidate in demography and sociology at Penn State University.

Declines are especially acute in Western Pennsylvania, where more than a dozen colleges and universities have become a cornerstone in the post-industrial transition to “meds and eds” in Pittsburgh. Enrollment in the 14-school State System of Higher Education decreased 2.9 percent and 1 percent in 2012 and 2011, respectively, after 14 years of increases.

“We continue to hear from our colleges and universities the need to look outside Pennsylvania, as well as the need for remedial education” for incoming freshmen, said state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, a House Education Committee member. “We've got to reform the system.”

Chance to take a new path

Education analysts said the decline in high school graduates is a chance for colleges to think differently about enrollment management.

Administrators could focus more on recruiting adult learners, military veterans and out-of-state students, the analysts said.

Plus, “rather than focus so much on enrolling students and recruiting students, there's an opportunity to retain those students who do enroll” and cut dropout rates, said Kevin Eagan, an assistant director at the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I also think there's an opportunity (for four-year institutions) to partner with community colleges to increase transfer rates,” Eagan said.

Some schools are adapting.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a state system school, aggressive and targeted recruitment helped it buck the system's enrollment dips, school Vice President James Begany said. IUP boosted its student base about 3.5 percent during the past couple of years to 15,379 this fall.

The increase includes growth in graduate programs and out-of-state enrollment, which climbed from 6 percent in 2007 to 8.3 percent. Begany said the school does especially well with students from Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. It uses counselors, mailers and high-tech targeted marketing to approach students.

“We really need to diversify,” Begany said, adding the “Hispanic population may be the only growth population in Pennsylvania.”

He said the school hired a Latino recruiter and multiplied enrollment in the demographic from 57 students in 2007 to 117 this fall.

Looking outside the state

Reaching outside Pennsylvania can be lucrative for state-related and state-owned universities, which can roughly double tuition for out-of-state students. At the main campuses of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, both state-related schools, more freshmen are enrolling from outside Pennsylvania.

Pitt counted about 35 percent out-of-state freshmen last year at the Oakland campus, up from 17 percent a decade ago, school records show. Penn State had 40 percent out-of-state freshmen in State College, up from 37 percent.

But “the public tolerates that to only a certain level” at taxpayer-supported institutions, said Joni Finney, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

If in-state applicants can't get in while more non-Pennsylvanians enroll, Finney said, the schools could experience a backlash.

She said the 14 state-system schools may be better prepared to accommodate more adult learners than the state-related universities, which include Temple in Philadelphia.

“I think they're focused more on outcomes,” Finney said of the state-owned system. She said the system is “careful about tuition increases, whereas Penn State, Temple and other state-relateds have not done that.”

Penn State spokeswoman Jill Shockey said the state-system schools receive more state funding, as measured per full-time student, than the state-related schools. The World Campus, Penn State's online education arm, gets 94 percent adult learners, with an average age of 32 among its undergraduates, Shockey said.

Temple logs equal graduation rates among adult learners and the conventional 18- to 22-year-old college set, spokesman Ray Betzner said. He said the university has frozen its base tuition this year and is raising $100 million for student support.

“We're working with an older market looking to get a good education at a good price,” Betzner said.

Not just a Pa. problem

Pennsylvania isn't alone in enduring a demographic pinch.

The interstate commission anticipates declines of at least 5 percent in high school graduates between 2007 and 2022 in 18 states, including Ohio, New York and West Virginia.

Fourteen others, including Colorado, Delaware, New Jersey and Florida, expect increases of at least 5 percent.

Still, “it takes a lot of effort to recruit students and convince them to move from a state that's rapidly growing — like Utah — to Pennsylvania, for instance,” said commission research director Brian Prescott.

“It can be much more difficult and costly for schools to recruit students” from outside the state, he said, “even though in the end they may gain revenue as a net.”

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

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