Enrollment patterns in Western Pa. show private schools' strategy working

Debra Erdley
| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 9:25 p.m.

Generous tuition discounts and aggressive recruitment campaigns are netting record freshman enrollments at some private universities in Western Pennsylvania while lower-cost, state-owned universities struggle.

Duquesne University and Clarion University of Pennsylvania illustrate the conundrum: Duquesne, a private university where base tuition is $28,913, welcomed its largest-ever freshman class this fall. Clarion, a state-owned university where base tuition is $9,454, marks its fourth consecutive year of declining freshman enrollment.

“I really wanted a personal relationship with the university and the teachers. I never liked large classrooms,” said Connor Doran, 18, of Baldwin Borough, a freshman music education and piano major at Duquesne who said he never considered a state-owned university.

A national survey conducted for Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities last year suggested their lower tuition isn't a selling point to in-state students.

“When compared with the national sample, Pennsylvania students have more favorable opinions about private colleges and universities and are more willing to assume debt to pay for their education,” researchers said.

That might have something to do with the generous tuition discounts private universities offer. Public universities can't engage in discounting, said Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, although they may offer institutional aid from gifts, endowments and surplus funds.

Private college discounts, categorized as institutional aid, have grown in recent years. A survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that the average tuition discount for full-time freshmen at private colleges and universities last year grew to 45 percent.

The competition is increasingly brisk as the number of Pennsylvania high school graduates, which peaked at about 131,000 in 2010, continues a decline not expected to end until 2020.

Private universities can cast wide recruitment nets, while the state system's mandate is to offer affordable tuition to Pennsylvania residents, who made up about 89 percent of their student bodies last fall.

“We've seen that happen in Washington state, and you actually saw a slight increase in enrollment at the independents nationally, while there was a decline at the public level. I think it is just that those independent schools are equipped better to deal with this because they have out-of-state recruitment strategies and always have,” Reilly said.

That helped Seton Hill University in Greensburg, where undergraduate tuition is $29,200 a year, said Michael Poll, vice president for enrollment management there.

“Total freshman enrollment is up about 12.5 percent this year, and all of that is international and out-of-state,” Poll said.

Robert Morris University in Moon, where tuition is $25,095 a year, beat its enrollment projections when 980 freshmen showed up last week, up from 848 in 2012. Spokesman Jonathan Potts said the school emphasizes a strong post-graduate job placement rate in its marketing campaigns, which seems to resonate with prospective students.

Last year, 11 of 14 universities in the state system — which includes Clarion, Slippery Rock, California, Indiana and Edinboro universities — had enrollment declines. Indiana, the only one in Western Pennsylvania that saw a slight enrollment increase last year, declined to release preliminary freshman enrollment for this year. It is projecting a 4 percent decline in total enrollment.

At California, where freshman enrollment plummeted from 1,346 to 954 last year, preliminary freshman enrollment this year was 1,204 — up, but well below the 1,412 freshmen the school welcomed in 2009. At Slippery Rock, preliminary figures showed a 7 percent decline in freshman enrollment this year.

Last week, Slippery Rock University President Cheryl Norton attributed a projected $5.2 million deficit in part “to a declining population of high school graduates who are college ready.”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy