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York County colleges, others across the state see enrollment decline

Penn State York freshman Joey Peters of Lower Windsor Township and other Graham Fellows candidates sign a pillar that will be used in the construction of the Graham Center for Innovation and Collaboration during a signing reception on campus at the adjacent Pullo Center Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. Donors, members of the Graham Fellows Program for Entrepreneurial Leadership, students, staff and faculty also participated. The center is slated for completion next spring. Bill Kalina photo

Penn State York is among many colleges across the state and nationally seeing declining enrollment, according to recent data.

In the fall of 2019, the public college in Spring Garden Township welcomed 120 fewer students than in the year prior, for a total enrollment of 828, according to a school fact book released Nov. 13.

Though not a huge dip, it continued a steady decline since 2015, when enrollment was 1,105.

International students comprised the most significant drop over the past year. In 2018, they made up 17% of the total student body. That sank to 12% this year. The school projects that total will fall to 10% in 2020.  

Penn State York Chancellor David Christiansen said he is not expecting a rebound among international students, based on factors such as the Chinese government's recent discouragement of students coming to the U.S. because of the trade war between the two countries.

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But a decline in international students is just one factor among many that are affecting enrollment, and they're not unique to Penn State York.

In fact, the problems stretch to all of Penn State University's campuses, which collectively saw a drop of 3,531 total students from 2015 to 2019.

Similarly, York College, a private four-year nonprofit school, saw numbers dip over the last three years. Fall freshmen enrollment dropped from 993 in 2017 to 942 in 2019.

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York County School of Technology sophomore Deyonce Smikle laughs during a Quantum Opportunity Program session at York College Center for Community Engagement Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. The program, which provides academic assistance to students, is offered through a partnership between York College and the York YWCA. Bill Kalina photo

Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education saw its 14 state-owned universities lose 20% of enrollment collectively since 2010, said the system's director of public relations, Dave Pidgeon.

Fewer students are going to college for reasons including a decrease in birth rates, a population shift that's growing the state's southeastern regions, an increase of students going directly into the workforce after high school and the rising costs of education.

"At the root of the problem is Pennsylvania severely under-invests in higher education," said Diana Polson, policy analyst at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center — a subset of the Keystone Research Center.

Polson said the state ranks 47th out of 50 states in per capita investment in higher education, which leads to higher tuition and student debt.

For example, the State System — which includes Shippensburg and Millersville universities — received state funding that covered 63% of its education and general fund budgets when it was founded in 1983, compared with 28% today. 

That does have an impact on tuition because revenue has to come from somewhere, Pidgeon said.

York College administrators in 2018 said declining enrollment led to a projected $2.9 million budget shortfall for the next year, which caused tension among faculty when they were asked to consider $1 million in compensation cuts.

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"Enrollments are solidifying," said Daniel Green, the school's vice president of enrollment management, so there have been modest raises but no layoffs. If there was a major drop-off in enrollment, however, that would become an issue, he said.

Driving up tuition can send students looking for cheaper options, so schools are also making concentrated efforts to keep tuition low.

Penn State York has kept tuition flat three out of the last five years, and the State System last July froze tuition at $7,716 at 10 of its schools for the first time in 21 years. York College has tuition and fees less than $21,000, which is competitive with public college rates. 

The average private college tuition in Pennsylvania is $36,329, including fees, Green said.

Reporting from the budget and policy center concluded there's been a decline in working class students, "and we think that's directly related to price," Polson said.

But there has also been a drop in students attending college because western and northern counties have been losing population while southeastern and central counties are seeing growth, Pidgeon said.

"Large swathes of Pennsylvania have experienced a population shift," he said.

Live births also dropped by about 12,500 from 2007 to 2017, according to the state Department of Health, and there was a decline in baby boomers' children graduating from college after 2009 statewide and nationally, Polson said.

This ends up affecting campuses because state residents make up 88% of State System students, Pidgeon said. Christiansen said his campus's students are also primarily in-state. 

Additionally, Penn State York is seeing more out-of-state competition, as many students who used to come from Maryland or New Jersey are now staying there or choosing online options.

Online programs are affecting brick-and-mortar schools, Christiansen said, and since the economy is strong, some students are going into the workforce right after high school.

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In order to combat the enrollment challenge, local institutions are focusing on programming, partnerships, branching into new markets and retention.

Penn State York is catering to a workforce-ready community by replacing some programs with ones that are more professionally focused — such as a new communications program centered around business.

The State System is looking at a redesign to support continuing education — including underserved markets such as adults going back to school and professionals looking for "shorter burst" credential options.

Some economists are predicting another recession in 2021, which might actually drive students back to school, based on past trends, Christiansen said.

"We’re in growth and sustainability mode," Green said, and are doing a lot to branch out into new markets and increase visibility — including a host of new graduate programs. New student enrollment for graduate students is up 26%. 

Green said officials are also promoting student involvement in nearby York City and offering more programs in elementary schools to make sure a student's first experience of the college isn’t an application.

York College is seeing increases in minority students and, thanks to some local efforts and international partnerships, more students from overseas.

"The educational landscape is changing," Green said. "It’s up to a place like York College to partner with businesses and other institutions to continue improving."