Student declines vex Penn State University branches

| Friday, March 18, 2011

More than half of Penn State University's branch campuses, the target of possible closures, are bleeding students.

A Tribune-Review examination found enrollment declined at 11 of 19 branches over the past eight years, even though enrollment at Pennsylvania's four-year colleges increased 16 percent overall during that period.

The decreases could be a critical factor in the university's decision on whether to close campuses as it struggles to absorb a proposed $182 million reduction in state support.

Gov. Tom Corbett suggested a 50 percent cut in state funding for higher education in his budget proposal. That prompted Penn State President Graham Spanier to raise the possibility of closing branches and increasing tuition, which ranks as most expensive among the nation's flagship state universities.

Penn State's board of trustees is scheduled to meet today in New York City. Cost-cutting moves are not on the agenda, but Spanier is expected to discuss the state cuts.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene Hickok was Pennsylvania's secretary of Education when Penn State acquired a law school and made its two-year campuses into four-year ones in the late 1990s.

"What Penn State did was build this empire that's very difficult to support, as this demonstrates," Hickok said.

"We put a halt to some of it, arguing our studies showed, looking at the landscape, there just wasn't a need for it. In the end, (Spanier) got his way. It seems to me they might be experiencing the fallout from that," said Hickok, a consultant for a lobbying and public affairs firm in Washington.

The fallout could be severe in Western Pennsylvania, where enrollment over the past eight years declined 19 percent at the New Kensington campus, 18 percent at McKeesport, 24 percent at Shenango and 9 percent at Fayette. In northeastern Pennsylvania, the declines were smaller: 5 percent at Scranton, 5 percent at Hazleton and 4 percent at Wilkes-Barre.

Edward Nicholson, retired president of Robert Morris University and a vocal opponent of the branch campus expansions, was not surprised to hear Spanier suggest closing branches.

"It makes perfect sense for Penn State to shrink the regional campus system in response to falling demand. If you were operating as a business, that's precisely what you would do," Nicholson said.

Kevin Snider, chancellor at Penn State New Kensington, said it's not that simple. The school is an important player in the community, provides a low-cost education alternative and is rebounding from hard times, he said.

"Last fall we had the third-largest increase in freshmen in Pennsylvania and the largest in Western Pa. ... We're not getting anything right now that's telling us University Park is looking to close a campus," Snider said.

Ron Cowell, a former state lawmaker who heads The Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg, said any such plan should weigh whether other colleges are nearby.

"I think Penn State and anybody else would want to think very carefully about closing branch campuses on enrollment alone," Cowell said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said all of the campuses are "viable."

"But the governor's proposal brings into question the current model," Powers said without elaborating.

Many branches were founded 50 to 100 years ago at the request of host communities before community colleges opened, she said. Aggregate branch campus enrollment has grown slightly, Powers emphasized.

But Don Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education located at Penn State, was hesitant to dismiss the enrollment declines.

"Anytime you've got a decline in enrollment, that's a concern. Certainly, the demographics of Pennsylvania are such that we're not seeing a large growth in the population of the commonwealth. Demographics drive a lot of demand for college," Heller said, noting he did not speak for the university.

JoAnne Boyle, president of Seton Hill University in Greensburg, said Penn State might need to invest in recruitment to boost branch enrollment.

"The number of high school graduates that are going to be headed on to college in the next few years is going to be declining significantly," Boyle said.

Although Corbett and Budget Secretary Charles Zogby are adamant that colleges do their share to close the state's $4 billion budget deficit, a recent survey suggests public support for the plan is not strong. The poll of 521 Pennsylvanians found 67 percent strongly or somewhat opposed cuts to higher education.

Hickok said it would be a mistake to underestimate Penn State's leverage with a Legislature that includes university alumni and lawmakers with branches in their districts.

"I have to say Penn State's political influence has always been very strong. ... If you're smart politically, and you have to be smart politically to run a major state university, you have to make sure you have leverage where you need it," he said.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy