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Pa. colleges recruit elsewhere to survive

Debra Erdley
| Sunday, June 23, 2013, 10:40 p.m.

Pennsylvania's public and private nonprofit colleges constitute big business, pumping an estimated $30 billion or more into the economy each year, but after years of growth, they're forced to adapt to the reality of fewer high school graduates to recruit and less money in subsidies.

The state's pool of high school graduates is down more than 10,000 after peaking at about 131,000 in 2010, and experts who study birth and immigration rates predict it will dip to 112,400 by 2020.

At the same time, potential students are reconsidering college as job opportunities improve in the rebounding economy.

The combination means college recruiters must work harder to meet goals and keep tuition flowing in a world where the loss of 100 students paying $10,000 a year can cause a $1 million hole.

That scenario put Rodney Jenkins, executive assistant to the president of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, on the road. The school tucked in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, about a 3 12 hour drive from Pittsburgh, enrolled 5,328 last fall. It has boosted its marketing and advertising budget fivefold.

“The only option for us is to look at areas outside of the state,” Jenkins said during a recent visit to Pittsburgh.

Lock Haven's typical recruit applies to several of the 13 schools that compose the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, he said. Enrollment declined at 11 of those schools last fall; applications slipped 6.5 percent systemwide.

Jenkins is taking Lock Haven's pitch — low-cost residential education and quality performing arts and science programs — to Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and regions west.

“Our greatest asset is cost. It's $14,000 to $17,000 a year in-state, depending on which dorm you chose, and it's $24,000 out-of-state. It's cheaper to go to Lock Haven if you live in Los Angeles than it is to go to school in Los Angeles,” Jenkins said.

Yet even that can be a tough sell. A growing number of students — more than half nationwide — opt to live at home to reduce costs, according to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

A slight decline in applications and enrollment doesn't concern Lock Haven officials, Jenkins said. Others say such developments give college administrators nightmares.

“You live or die by swings of a few students here and there,” said Jonathan Potts, a spokesman for Robert Morris University in Moon.

Colleges acknowledged the expected financial impact when Moody's Investor's Service ran the numbers this year. The financial services giant found 17 percent of private and public universities nationwide expect declining tuition revenue this year and 16 percent expect increases below the inflation rate.

“We knew this was coming,” said Mike Reilly, director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, whose members represent 2,400 colleges.

To compete, Reilly said, colleges have boosted outreach to high school students, targeted adult learners, extended recruitment boundaries and offered more financial aid.

Though tradition-bound college professors acknowledge schools must adapt, some fear the consequences.

Steve Hicks, a Lock Haven English professor who heads the faculty union for the 14 state-owned universities, said some professors grumble that schools are lowering academic standards to fill classrooms and dormitories.

Michael Slavin, chairman of the department of theater and dance at California University of Pennsylvania, isn't worried about that, but he has heard professors lament the decline of traditional academics in favor of career-oriented programs that attract students.

“We have to look at the marketplace. We have a product we are offering. But our product is an educated person who can go out into the world and do many things. If we believe we've prepared a person to go to work for IBM and stay there forever, we've failed,” Slavin said.

Robert Morris, with enrollment of 5,181 last year, stepped up its game years ago with an eye toward growth and weathering demographic swings.

It added Division I sports, extended out-of-state recruitment, beefed up professional majors and lifted academic standards. This year, it boasted on billboards of 90 percent-plus job placement for graduates.

The result: First-time freshman applications increased 14.3 percent over last year, and deposits are up 3 percent.

Chatham University in Shadyside has reinvented itself several times to survive, adding co-ed graduate programs that enroll 1,256 in addition to 922 students in its undergraduate women's college. It started programs in high-demand health care majors and is building a “green” campus in the North Hills to house its school of sustainability and the environment.

“It's definitely tough out there. Everyone is feeling it,” said Bill Campbell, Chatham's vice president of marketing and communications.

LaRoche College in McCandless (enrollment 1,456) decided to deal with it by going global. While Pennsylvania's traditional college pool declined after 2010, the number of foreign students in the state increased by nearly 19 percent from 28,097 to 33,398.

“Our solution was to not only recruit from outside of the Pittsburgh region, but outside of the U.S. as well,” said Brady Butler, marketing and communications director. As a result, international students account for 20 percent of a student body that has grown during the past four years.

Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, said such success among some member schools can be key to the health of host communities in small towns that rely on the colleges as major employers that bring in students who spend money.

Penn State University, with more than 95,000 students in 19 campuses beyond its main campus in Centre County, spreads that impact across the state.

Although overall applications declined 8 percent this year — from 59,353 in 2012 to 54,639 — Cynthia Hall, interim chief marketing and communications officer, is encouraged by the possibility for increased enrollment this fall at campuses in Beaver and Fayette counties, McKeesport, New Kensington, Dubois and Shenango.

Penn State's loss may have been Pitt's gain. The University of Pittsburgh reported a 15 percent increase in applications, bringing the total to a record 31,752.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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