How Much Is This Actually an Enrollment Problem?


Frank T. Brogan, the Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, has moved forward with a review of the finances of the 14 institutions in the system, with the goal of “reorganizing” the system—or merging or closing some of the institutions—to make it more “sustainable.”

There is a considerable range in the enrollments at the 14 institutions—from 746 at Cheney, an HBC, and 2,209 at Mansfield to 13,114 at Indiana and 17,006 at West Chester—and the range has become somewhat more pronounced over the last decade. As much as anything, the publicly asserted desire of some of the larger institutions to have more autonomy or a more proportionate share of the allocated funding is certainly one of the reasons for the review.

The 14 institutions in the system were, however, originally state teachers colleges and were located throughout the state to insure that all parts of the state would have pools of teachers trained to the same standards. There are parallels in other states. For instance, the 24 regional campuses in Ohio were established so that a university education would be within 35 to 40 miles of every resident of Ohio. So, several of the campuses in rural areas have enrollments of under 1,000, while several in more urban or suburban areas have enrollments of 3,000 to 5,000.

In any case, if one looks at the following charts, one can see that while there is an issue with declines in enrollment across the State System of Higher Education, it is not really a crisis of historic proportions, nor is it a system-wide issue of equal proportions: that is, the current enrollment is being measured against the artificial peak enrollment created by the Great Recession and the federal stimulus that gave the unemployed the option of enrolling in colleges and universities; likewise, although the enrollment decline has occurred at 12 of the 14 institutions in the system, the declines at almost all of the institutions would be marginal, at most, if the baseline were the enrollments in 2007 or 2008, before the Great Recession and the response to it briefly distorted enrollments.

pa-university-system-enrollmentpa-system-enrollment-2010-2013-2014 pa-system-enrollment-2010-2015-2016

My own university is now dealing with a largely self-created budget crisis, and the choice of an enrollment baseline has been critical to the arguments that the crisis was hard to avoid because of enrollment declines and the state’s decision to begin to award funding on the basis of three-year averaging. But the loss of the stimulus dollars and the recession-related enrollment coincided with and was compounded by our shifting from a quarter-based to a semester-based calendar. So a significant number of students “rushed” to graduate in order to avoid any complications caused by the conversion of the credit hours earned under the two academic calendars. And yet, aside from that brief dip in our enrollment and despite the recession-accelerated erosion in state support, our overall revenues have been relatively flat or have modestly increased in each of the last seven years. So, it is hard to argue that some significant decline in expected revenue created our institution’s budget problems.

In contrast, an article written by Susan Snyder for the Philadelphia Inquirer includes this data: “The system also has endured cuts in state funding. Only in the last couple of years has funding increased. But, noted Cynthia D. Shapira, chair of the system’s board of governors, funding remains $60 million below what it was the year before the recession began.”

So, is the current review actually necessary because of an alarming, historic decline in enrollment or because of the cumulative effects of substantial and sustained reductions in state funding? And if both things are partly to blame, which is more to blame?

One can argue that the answer to that question may not ultimately matter because neither the enrollments nor the funding levels are likely to change dramatically any time soon.

But the answer does very much matter in terms of influencing the public perception of public higher education and in terms of shaping public opinion on how best to address both the rising cost of higher education and the increasing percentage of that cost being borne by students and their families.

It is a mistake to minimize the impact of political decisions that affect the viability of public institutions—especially when those decisions reflect ideology as much as they are necessitated by circumstances.


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