Many campuses, not so many students — state and state-related schools draw from same shrinking pool

It doesn't take much of a road trip from California University of Pennsylvania, where enrollment has dropped by 20 percent in six years, to run head-on into competition.

Little more than 20 miles down the road near Uniontown, Penn State University Fayette, The Eberly Campus, is working to hold onto its share of the region's shrinking student market.

Thirty miles in another direction, Penn State's Greater Allegheny campus near McKeesport is trying to keep seats filled too.

Then there's the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, two more Penn State campuses, New Kensington and Beaver — all less than two hours from Cal U. That doesn't count Pitt's main campus, not to mention a region teeming with private colleges.

The array of taxpayer-supported university campuses operating in close proximity has long made some policymakers uneasy, given Western Pennsylvania's declining population. But with state-owned universities, Cal U. among them, now reeling from student losses that may alter or even endanger their futures, the question of what those schools are up against has gained new urgency.

Are Pitt and Penn State, as well as Pennsylvania's other state-related universities, Temple and Lincoln, siphoning students from the 14 state-owned schools?

The answer has implications for how effectively the state is targeting its limited financial resources, said state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, an Appropriations Committee member. "We put money into all those places," he said.

During a committee hearing this month, he seemed flabbergasted by actual and projected enrollment numbers accompanying Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed 2017-18 state budget. They showed state-related schools gaining 16,158 full-time students by 2021-22, but the 14 State System of Higher Education universities adding just 143 students, even though their tuition is substantially less.

''That's a 113-times difference," Sen. Argall said. "In my statistics class, I'm pretty sure they would have told me that's gobsmacking. I just can't imagine that the differential would be that great."

He then addressed the state-related presidents there to testify. "Do you believe that your institutions are responsible to any degree for the ongoing decrease in the student populations at many of the state-owned universities?" he asked.

"I do think it's largely a different population. I do think we offer different things," replied Eric Barron, president of Penn State, biggest of the schools whose nearly two dozen locations span the state.

Like the other state-related leaders, he reported robust main campus demand. Both he and Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher reported more mixed conditions on the other campuses.

Barron suggested Penn State's growth is largely online, and that its Commonwealth campuses statewide faced a drop in high school graduates, as did the State System. The system and Penn State's branches "actually (have) been in lockstep, up and then down ... except for the fact that Penn State, recognizing that this was about to occur, and doing a lot of demographic analysis and working hard at retention for our students ... we flattened out over the last three years."

He added, "It's very hard to look at those numbers and think we're taking students."

That was not the view of an internal study prepared by a consultant for the State System that explored why prospective students chose or bypassed the 14 state schools.

Maguire Associates of Concord, Mass, described Penn State, Pitt and Temple as among the "top competitors" for students who are accepted but ultimately turn down State System offers for other Pennsylvania campuses. A 2012 survey it conducted found 23 percent of those students chose a campus of one of those three state-related schools.

State System enrollment peaked at nearly 120,000 students in 2010 but since has slumped by more than 14,000 students, with only fast-growing West Chester University near Philadelphia and Slippery Rock University mustering gains since.

With some campuses down by 30 percent or more, the State System contends its universities as configured are not sustainable given rising expenses, lagging state aid and scant hope that high school graduate rates will rebound in parts of the state well into the next decade. Its leaders are beginning a strategic review and by summer expect recommendations that could include consolidation, mergers or even closure of a university.

But what's ultimately needed, State System Chancellor Frank Brogan has said, is a wider examination by Pennsylvania of its public higher education system and how it can best serve a commonwealth whose population patterns and workforce needs have changed drastically since many of the campuses were built generations ago.

To some, that idea sounds familiar. In fact, a report from the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett intended to tackle such issues gathers dust, said state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, ranking Democrat on the Education Committee.

He said state-related, state-owned and other institutions need to be more in sync.

"It doesn't need to be some czar sitting on top . . . we (just) need to talk to each other," he told the hearing for state-related universities.