The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colleges scramble to recruit students as nationwide enrollment plunges

Hundreds of thousands have left the college pipeline amid pandemic turmoil and the lure of jobs

The campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania in early March. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

INDIANA, Pa. — On Valentine’s Day, her hometown college offered BreAnn Stineman a seat in its Class of 2026. The “Certificate of Admission” from Indiana University of Pennsylvania validated her achievements as a mostly A student. “I told everybody,” the 18-year-old said. “I was so excited.”

But she’s not going yet. Stineman plans to take a “gap year” to work at a nursing home after graduation. High school during the pandemic, with long spells online or wearing masks, has felt grueling. For now, paychecks beckon. She wants to earn and save. “I need a break, you know?” Stineman said. “I definitely need a break. I just want to work. That’s all I want to do.”

Colleges across America face a daunting challenge: Their student head count has shrunk more than 5 percent since 2019, according to a national estimate, as debate over the value of higher education intensified during the public health crisis and economic tumult.

That’s an enrollment loss of nearly 1 million students. Some drifted out of college, while others never started. Many colleges are on an urgent quest to keep current students and recover their lost freshmen.

Continued erosion of enrollment is raising alarms

At stake are not only the education and career prospects of huge numbers of young adults, but also the financial health of regional colleges and universities. Once students leave, they often don’t return. Gap years can become permanent.

“How do we get these people to come back — especially in a strong job market?” asked Courtney Brown, a vice president with the Lumina Foundation, based in Indianapolis, which promotes learning beyond high school. Privileged universities are weathering the upheaval, Brown said. “It’s everybody else that is hurting.”

Here in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the student shortage has been developing for several years because of demographic factors such as stagnant population growth. The pandemic and, lately, rising wages in the economic recovery have accelerated the trend.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which produced the national estimate of enrollment decline, found acute troubles in several states since fall 2019. In Pennsylvania, public university enrollment fell 12 percent, and community college enrollment plunged 23 percent.

Community college enrollment plunges

IUP, as the public university here is known, mirrored the state pattern. Its fall student head count of about 9,300 was down 12 percent since 2019. Federal data shows enrollment peaked in 2012 at more than 15,500. That’s a 40 percent decline in a less than a decade, battering the university’s finances.

Starting in summer 2019, IUP President Michael A. Driscoll said, the school cut its workforce by about a quarter through attrition and layoffs. It also merged the College of Fine Arts and College of Humanities and Social Sciences, cut academic programs in fields such as dance arts, and reorganized numerous other programs.

“Dramatic and traumatic changes,” Driscoll acknowledged. Recently, IUP cut tuition to woo in-state students. Those who take a full-time load of 15 units per semester will be charged $7,716 in the next school year — 19 percent lower than the sticker price this year. Those prices don’t include scholarships and need-based financial aid.

Now the university says it is laser-focused on recruiting and retaining students. “It’s a culture change,” Driscoll said. “If I’m thinking about enrollment, it really is about ‘every student matters.’ ”

Around the country, regional public universities such as IUP have faced many more enrollment difficulties in recent years than the state flagships that fill seats easily. That is doubly problematic because regional schools also tend to serve more disadvantaged families. Forty percent of IUP’s students have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants, nearly twice the share found at better-known Pennsylvania State University.

The promise of social mobility, at an affordable price, draws students from low-income families to public colleges and universities. They see the bachelor’s degree as a ticket to a better life. The degrees are neither a prerequisite for, nor a guarantee of, career success. But research shows they are powerfully correlated with good jobs.

A study in October from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found the median lifetime earnings of those whose highest credential is a bachelor’s degree was $2.8 million, with the top quartile making at least $4.1 million. For those with only a high school diploma, the median was $1.6 million, with the top quartile at $2.2 million or more. The bachelor’s degree “is still the gold standard, especially over the long term,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the center.

Now, many potential college students are feeling the pull of the job market. The nation’s unemployment rate edged below 4 percent in February, and employers are offering higher wages and benefits for entry-level jobs that don’t require a college degree.

At public East Stroudsburg University, in the Pocono range of eastern Pennsylvania, enrollment fell 17 percent after the pandemic started, to 5,100 students as of last fall. Kenneth Long, the university’s interim president, said he often hears of potential students jumping into the retail or service industries in search of $15 an hour, sometimes $20 or more. “That’s what we’re competing against in many ways,” he said. Wages looked especially attractive when universities were operating largely online at the beginning of the pandemic. Long recalled a university student who told him: “I’m going to take a semester off because I’m making really, really good money right now.”

Long wants to redouble efforts to convince potential and current students that college is worth it over the long term. “What we have to do as educators is deliver that value proposition to the parents and to those kids,” he said. “We’re trying to touch the kid that doesn’t see college as their future.”

That vision can be a tough sell.

Milia Dawes toured colleges in Massachusetts, filled out a federal financial aid application and researched performing arts at Temple University in Philadelphia. Yet nagging uncertainties of what to study, where to go and how to pay for it all gave her pause after she graduated in 2020 from a high school in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“It felt really risky,” Dawes, now 19, said of enrolling in college. “I was never really sure. You don’t put that kind of money out — you don’t make that kind of commitment — if you’re not sure. I didn’t think it was the responsible thing to do.”

With encouragement from her mother, she enrolled at Delaware County Community College. But she said she felt adrift in virtual classes and quit school that November. Dawes toyed with returning, but her mother’s sudden death in March 2021 changed her priorities. She took a job at a Wawa convenience store, moved into a small apartment and eventually enrolled in cosmetology school. Her next goal is to work in a beauty salon, but she hasn’t ruled out college.

“Maybe in the future, I’ll take it bit by bit with online classes and do it while I’m doing hair and makeup, wherever that takes me,” Dawes said. “Maybe I could get a business degree to move up in the field.”

Pennsylvania faces another obstacle to college enrollment: a pattern of low funding for higher education. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, teaming with Illinois State University, compiled estimates that show Pennsylvania this year is spending about $142 per capita on higher education, less than every state except New Hampshire. As a result, students and their families pay a larger share of campus operating expenses. Tuition and fees for public universities are higher in Pennsylvania than in most states.

That, too, often hurts recruiting. Penn State, Temple and the University of Pittsburgh, all public institutions with national profiles, are in stronger shape than the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which encompasses IUP, East Stroudsburg and 12 other regional universities.

The system, with chronic enrollment problems, has been forced to cut costs. Plans are underway to merge six of its schools into two universities with three campuses apiece. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is seeking a 16 percent operating budget increase for the system, to $552 million a year, and $200 million for need-based aid to students in the system and community colleges. Those proposals are pending in the Republican-controlled state legislature. The system is pushing lawmakers to make the investment.

“Basically I say to them, ‘This is a choice. We are your system, you own us. What do you want?’ ” said system Chancellor Daniel Greenstein. “This is what you need in terms of your workforce development. We can’t deliver without your support.”

Here in Indiana, the university is not merging with any others. IUP is a midsize research institution that offers PhDs in fields including English and safety sciences, master’s degrees for a range of professions and bachelor’s degrees in more than 100 programs.

Founded in 1875, the university dominates a small town known as the birthplace of Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart and the center of a Christmas-tree-growing region.

Faculty members are proud of IUP and eager to help stabilize, or better yet raise, enrollment. Some say that the university grew too much when it reached 15,000 students a decade ago, and that a better target would have been 12,000. There have been years of cost-cutting pain, they say, as the head count plunged below 10,000 during the pandemic.

“It’s been hell on wheels,” said David Chambers, chair of political science. “Serious budget deficits.” He is planning to retire at the end of the school year after more than 30 years at IUP. “I don’t know, but I’m reasonably sure that I won’t be replaced,” Chambers said, “which then places a great deal of pressure on the department because they have to try to figure out how to cover the courses I teach.”

David Piper, a longtime professor of employment and labor relations, holds four degrees from IUP and chairs its University Senate. There was a time, he said, when enrollment “just happened.” Students showed up; faculty members taught. Now, it’s all hands on deck. He pitches in at student orientations and move-in days and other events. “I recruit when I’m on vacation,” Piper said. “I recruit when I go to church on Sunday. I recruit, you know, no matter what.”

On the university’s enrollment team, there is practically no end to the admissions cycle. It offers transfer and freshman seats on a rolling basis throughout the year and sticks with recruiting every day until students actually show up.

For the class that entered in fall 2020, records show that 93 percent of 9,030 freshman applicants were admitted. Of those, 1,864 enrolled that fall. The school generally expects at least a 2.5 high school grade-point average.

As of March 24, enrollment leaders counted 1,152 deposits from admitted students to save a seat in the freshman class. But those totals can be deceiving because admitted students sometimes hedge their bets with deposits at multiple colleges. IUP officials would like the Class of 2026 to reach 2,000 students, but they say a more realistic scenario is about 1,800. They also are aiming for 300 new transfer students.

In an open house for prospective students, recruiter Lance Marshall pitched IUP’s academic programs, student-faculty relationships, Division II sports teams (the Crimson Hawks), suite-style housing and friendly vibe: “a really nice college town, very walkable, lots of great shops and restaurants,” he said. “I liked it here as a student. I’ve also raised my family here.”

On a tour of the campus, student guides showed off various configurations of two-, three- or four-student suites, raved about the cookies and gelato at the dining hall, showed off the student fitness center and noted that the town holds an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” parade and festival in honor of the famous holiday movie featuring native son Stewart.

Michael DeIeso, a postal worker from Philadelphia, was touring with his 17-year-old daughter, Adrianna. He didn’t go to college himself. But for his daughter, he said, “I definitely want her to get out and experience the college life. Meet new people.” Money matters to him. He’s been saving for tuition since Adrianna was a baby. “This is affordable,” he said. “That’s very attractive.”

Like other colleges, IUP mails prospective students reams of promotional material every year, along with emails and texts. But often the best way to land one is through word of mouth.

Last year, Hudson Jean was a freshman who might have gotten lost but didn’t. After high school, he thought about private Lebanon Valley College, near his hometown of Lititz, Pa. But Jean, who possesses a strong bass voice, heard from a conductor about a music professor at IUP named Craig Denison. That contact called Denison “an amazing conductor” and said, according to Jean: “You should go work with him. He needs basses.”

Jean started at IUP in spring 2021 as the coronavirus was still wreaking havoc at schools across the country. “It was a weird time,” he recalled. One recent afternoon here, he was singing “Let My Love Be Heard” in the chorale. “It’s not just the music,” Jean, now 19 and a sophomore, said during a rehearsal break. “It’s the personality of the staff that keeps me here. You can’t have good music without personality.”

Sometimes the nudge comes from a brother or sister.

Jorge L. Tapia Becerril, a junior at IUP majoring in political science, would be the first in his immigrant family to graduate from college. Tapia, 21, who aspires to become a lawyer, was born in Mexico and grew up in Kennett Square, Pa. He said he wants to set a college-going example for his three younger sisters. “They are capable of doing it,” he said. “And if they set their minds to it, they will achieve it.”

With Tapia’s encouragement, his 18-year-old sister, Jarely, enrolled here in the fall. She is a criminology major.

For any regional university, the most crucial source of new students is the local high school. Indiana Area Senior High School is eager to do all it can to open doors to IUP through dual-enrollment programs and other neighborly connections. In a typical year, it sends about 60 graduates to the university.

But many graduating seniors are looking for jobs right away. A career corner in the school library displays numerous guidebooks for them, including “300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree.”

Stineman, a senior at the school, seems definitive about her goals after the gap year. “I couldn’t imagine my life not going to go college,” she said. “I’m dead set on going.” But she doesn’t know yet whether that would be IUP or a community college.

For some, the question of jobs vs. college after high school is a false choice. They want both. If their plans succeed, colleges may discover a large number of potential students are not lost forever. They’re just delayed.

Garrett Griffith is a metalworking whiz. The 18-year-old high school senior from nearby Marion Center was milling a piece of tool steel to a 45-degree angle one recent afternoon in a machining laboratory here. Griffith has taken dual-enrollment classes from IUP. He wants to study business and accounting in hopes of someday owning a manufacturing shop.

But Griffith hasn’t applied to IUP or any other college. He sees himself on a different track.

With his metalworking skills, Griffith figures to start in a well-paying job after he graduates and then pursue a bachelor’s degree on the side, with help from his employer.

“I’m looking to continuously earn education credentials as I work,” Griffith said. “One of my thoughts is to further myself as much as possible, but not break the bank and put myself in the hole.” Griffith is not drawn to the college “experience” — campus dormitories and all of that — as much as he is to skills, training and certification. He talks about college in this way: “It’s not for the lifestyle. It’s for the benefits.”

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