As state funding waned and the economy soured, universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education typically could count on something other than mere cost-cutting to get them through hard times.
Year after year, rising enrollment brought in sorely needed revenue, creating the appearance in some cases that those schools could grow their way out of trouble.
But after 14 years of uninterrupted growth, the pattern has changed.
As fall classes start today, officials are predicting a second consecutive year of enrollment declines across the system, whose 14 member schools include California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.
The projected loss of roughly 1,500 students is modest for a system with more than 118,000 students, and not every campus says it expects to see a decline.
Still, it is a significant departure from a trend that over 14 years lifted State System enrollment by 28 percent, from 93,711 to 119,513 students. And it is adding uncertainty to campuses already dealing with rising costs and a state appropriation that is 20 percent smaller than two years ago.
Student tuition and fees, along with state funds, are the two principal sources of State System revenue. If both take a hit simultaneously, there is only so much schools can do to offset the loss, said Patrick Burkhart, a Slippery Rock professor and head of the campus faculty union.
"Eventually, what you can't compensate for with greater efficiency has to mean reduced services," he said.
At Slippery Rock, which last year enrolled 8,712 students, administrators say they expect to see a decline this fall that could approach 1.5 percent, or 130 students.
Systemwide, a clear contributor to the enrollment slump is a decline in Pennsylvania high school graduates, said Kenn Marshall, a State System spokesman. He said that by one projection, the state was expected to have 5,000 fewer graduates this spring than a year ago.
Others point to factors from growing price sensitivity among families in a bad economy to decisions by some high school graduates to go directly into the workforce, given strong job demand related to Marcellus Shale.
Mr. Marshall said about 89 percent of State System students are Pennsylvanians, so given the high school numbers, "We're probably not doing that bad. But still, we would rather not see declines."
The trend has put some schools in unfamiliar territory.
California University of Pennsylvania's new on-campus housing still had vacancies as of last week, according to the university's website.
"In the past we've been filled at this point, but families are continuing to come in," said CalU spokeswoman Christine Kindl.
She said it was premature to discuss enrollment or housing numbers, as they are changing daily. She confirmed that CalU hopes to save $500,000 in leasing costs at its Southpointe Center location by reassigning an unspecified number of employees to the main campus in California.
Edinboro University officials said they expect a decline from last year's 8,262 enrollment.
"We're down about 400 right now," spokesman Jeff Pinski said.
The projected loss of about 5 percent includes various aspects of the enrollment including the freshman class.
"It's obviously a matter of demographics," said Mr. Pinski, pointing to population declines in northwestern and Western Pennsylvania.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest of the State System schools, does not anticipate a decline, spokeswoman Michelle Fryling said. The university expects to at least match last year's total enrollment of 15,132 and to match last year's freshman class of 2,901.
At Clarion University, officials say they began planning well in advance for a decline there this fall that is expected to be about 4 percent or around 300 students. "It's definitely not welcome, but it's not as bad as it could be," university spokesman David Love said.
Two-thirds of the loss is in the area of education majors, he said.
Mr. Love said the school has worked to cut costs in areas that will not affect education quality. Officials at other campuses said they too are engaged in cost containment efforts intended to blunt the downturn's impact.
Slippery Rock administrators say newer, more energy-efficient construction has produced savings in utility bills. Like other campuses, the school has shifted resources from low-enrolled programs to those with higher demand, said Carrie Birckbichler, associate provost for academic budgets and institutional research.
For schools, the difference between an empty and a full classroom seat can be many thousands of dollars.
Full-time undergraduates who reside in Pennsylvania pay $6,428 a year for tuition plus fees. If they live on campus, they pay thousands of dollars more for room and board that supports dorm and dining hall operations.
In recent years, campuses that were able to fill seats in classes without exceeding maximum enrollment limits could avoid hiring additional instructors and thus maximize the revenue gain. But class size increases have became a point of contention with faculty who say it weakens the learning experience.
Over the last decade and a half, some campuses saw enrollment growth well beyond the State System rate of 28 percent. CalU, for instance, saw its enrollment since 1996 grow from 5,636 to 9,483, a gain of 68 percent that was aided by rapid online education growth.
Mr. Love from Clarion said officials on his campus are optimistic the downturn will be reversed. The school, like others, is working to cast a wider recruiting net and bolster retention of existing students.
"You either recruit more students or keep more students," he said. "Our plan is a combination of both."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.