The number of students attending Pennsylvania colleges and universities is declining and the situation is not expected to change in the next few years.
Nathan Grawe, author of “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education," told the Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee this week that declines in birth rates will lead to a further drop in the number of college students by the year 2035. That’s not good news for university officials, who are already seeing enrollment decreases.
“We’ve seen a good bit in the appropriations committee hearings about the data regarding our 14 state-owned universities with an enrollment decline of 4 percent last year, the eighth-consecutive year of decline for these institutions” said state Sen. David Argall, R-Mahanoy City, the committee chairman. “This drop now means that our state system of universities will educate fewer than 100,000 students for the first time since 2003.”
Declining birth rates means college enrollment could drop 15 percent over a five-year period beginning in 2026, Grawe told the committee. Private colleges with small endowments and fewer than 1,000 students will likely be hit hardest.
Lawmakers and state education officials will be faced with a lot of decisions, Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport said.
“So, you either eliminate some schools, which I would assume unfortunately somewhere in the United States that’s going to happen,” Yaw said. “Or they have to reduce them in size if they’re all going to still stay open and share a small population.”
The demographic changes could mean increased competition among institutions on price and standards.
“I hope it will also mean competition on the quality of the product,” Grawe said. “We know that parents and students are interested increasingly so in the relevance aspect of education.”
The statistics should lead colleges and universities to act soon.
“We can talk about access, we can increase college attendance rates, and all of these things will be important things for us to be thinking about for a number of reasons,” Grawe said. “But ultimately, when the number of children available change so dramatically, we have to recognize that if we just stay on autopilot and don’t change what we do, we’re going to see some changes on our campuses. “
Colleges should look at increasing their recruitment of students from different backgrounds if they want to stave off some of the expected enrollment decreases, he added. But no matter what colleges do, the decline is inevitable due to drops in the birth rate. Grawe referred to a quote from Bill Connelly, vice president for enrollment at Bucknell University, to illustrate how it will affect college admissions.
“'I can’t recruit students who haven’t been born,'” Grawe quoted Connelly as saying.