PA colleges face enrollment drops with declining population


Jenna L. Korth

A student stands alone in a hallway at CCAC North. Dr. Nathan Grawe suspects that Pennsyvania colleges, including CCAC, will face enrollment drops.

David Heilman, North Campus Staff

Hallways at college campuses throughout Pennsylvania may soon look a little empty.

In April, Dr. Nathan Grawe stood in front of the Pennsylvania Senate and reported dire findings to the legislation and university boards on the future of higher education. During the Great Recession of 2008, a birth rate decrease led to a nearly 13 percent population drop.

Over a decade later the time is quickly approaching that this generation of children will become high school graduates, the life blood demographic of colleges and universities. This drop in population is a damaging blow to institutions that are already hurting in enrollment numbers. Colleges in Pennsylvania’s state system are already reporting an almost 18 percent drop in attendance since 2010.

The primary concern comes with the colleges that provide a bulk of the higher education: four-year colleges not ranked within the top 50 and two-year community colleges. According to Grawe these schools “track” with the state’s population, meaning that enrollment decreases as popluation decreases.

A nearly 13 percent drop by year 2026 could be crippling to some.

Nevertheless, population is not the only determining factor in the future welfare of a university. Grawe stated in the hearing that national colleges ranked within the top 50 of universities may thrive short term in this population drop. However even the elite campuses are not immune to a decline long term.

It is now up to legislators and college administrators to determine a path to avoid collapse.
A large step in the right direction has already been made this year: A recently passed bill will allow state-owned colleges in Pennsylvania to opt out of a previously restrictive “tuition by committee” setup. Effective 2020 these colleges will have the option to set their own tuition costs and increase potential financial aid distribution. This allows state universities to better compete within the market from a fiscal standpoint and help decrease migration of student to other states.

An increase in financial flexibility alone is not enough to make up for lack of population and the question posed now is what the next step is. Committee Chairman Senator David G. Argall, R-Schuylkill/Berks questioned Grawe on the likelihood of campuses giving way due to the lack of attendance. “Nobody’s going to bail them out if they get into trouble, and the small ones might,” he said. He offered the idea of consolidation as one way to solve the problem.

Not all solutions are as grim as the closing of campuses and, in some cases, may lead to a richer environment for students. In an interview Grawe gave for The Chronicle in December 2017, he pointed out that a potential solution is a rework of administration to make universities more flexible. He states, “Remaining agile is going to be increasingly important. We can’t simply do the same thing as before.”

The increase in flexibility could allow for a greater consideration for nontraditional students in universities. Additionally he states that a narrowing of population could be beneficial to colleges receiving little to no state funding. Allowing for a greater “per-pupil expenditure” distribution.

For the time the danger to Pennsylvania higher education remains numbers and graphs on a prediction sheet. However as time passes action and acknowledgement become more vital to prevent these numbers from becoming reality.