HARRISBURG -- Enrollment figures anticipated with unease for months across the State System of Higher Education were released Thursday, and the news was not good, especially for Western Pennsylvania campuses.
Total enrollment at the 14 state-owned universities, which peaked two years ago at 119,513 students, slipped for the second consecutive fall, this time to 114,784. That is 3,440 students fewer than the 118,224 who attended in fall 2011, a decline of 2.9 percent.
Eleven of the 14 universities saw declines, including all Western Pennsylvania campuses except Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which registered a 3.5 percent gain to 15,668 students, the largest total enrollment of the 14 schools.
The systemwide loss in numbers is the biggest at least since 1990 and may be the largest since the State System's founding three decades ago, officials said. Still, total enrollment remains higher than it was in 2008, due to more than a decade of yearly record enrollments.
State System officials have cited a drop in statewide high school graduation rates, in particular across Western Pennsylvania, as well as other economic contributors, as reasons for the downward trend.
The largest percentage loss occurred at Edinboro University, down 9.7 percent to 7,462 students, followed by California University of Pennsylvania, down 9.2 percent to 8,608 students. Among other Western Pennsylvania schools, Clarion University was down 6.7 percent to 6,520 students and Slippery Rock University saw its numbers slip by 1.8 percent to 8,559 students.
The numbers add more financial uncertainty to a group of universities already operating with a 20-percent-smaller state appropriation than they received two years ago and a still-unresolved contract dispute with their roughly 5,000 faculty, who have been without a contract since June 30, 2011.
As the schools intensify recruiting efforts to reverse the trend, they will have as a tool campuses largely remade thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in new suite-style residences, classroom buildings and student life centers. But those improvements have left the State System with $942 million of debt, twice what it faced a decade ago. Yearly payments on that debt are nearly $75 million across the system, according to most recent estimates.
That does not include another $1 billion in debt taken on by university affiliated groups for residence hall and other projects.
During Thursday's State System board of governors meeting, officials said they have worked to offset some of the enrollment decline by working to enroll more returning adults in new programs that address their needs and the needs of businesses that employ them.
Officials said they also are conducting a study of tuition, room and board, fees and other costs as they affect enrollment numbers. The more immediate responses to the lost students will involve belt-tightening.
"Short term, we'll have to balance our budgets and we'll do what we have to," State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said. "Especially those who have steep declines are going to have to make some difficult decisions."
The State System cited an estimate by the National Center for Education Statistics that there were 9,500 fewer high school graduates in Pennsylvania this spring than last year, a drop of 7 percent. The declines are expected to bottom out in 2015 and begin to reverse thereafter, Mr. Marshall said.
Edinboro president Julie E. Wollman said the school is dealing with the decline by finding budgetary savings that do not impact classroom quality and by boosting emphasis on recruiting and marketing.
"We are also expanding our reach beyond our traditional recruitment area, in effect, casting a wider net," she said.
Also Thursday, the board of governors and system administrators received a visible reminder of the faculty labor dispute as nearly 100 members of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties showed up at the Dixon University Center to protest, some toting signs that read "Be fair" and "Settle so we can teach" to drive home their frustration.
The dispute is the longest faculty impasse in the State System's history.
"Faculty are getting antsy about not having a contract, and they're going to start doing things to leverage one," said Steve Hicks, president of APSCUF.
He said the union's legislative assembly meets a week from Saturday in State College and could vote on a proposal to seek a membership strike authorization.
State System Chancellor John Cavanaugh said the system is ready to negotiate a contract that is fair to all parties. System officials said they will respond in the next couple of days to the union's call for binding arbitration.
Savings in health care, pay for temporary faculty and incentive payments to faculty for developing online courses are among the significant issues, both sides said. General pay increases are less of a contentious issue and are expected to track with contracts already covering other unionized state employees.
The State System has renewed its invitation to the faculty union to take part in a voluntary retirement program open to all faculty who are at least 60 years old and have served 20 years, or any member with three decades of service.
Also Thursday, the State System approved a $424.3 million education and general budget appropriation request to the state for 2013-14, an increase of 2.8 percent over this year. The system did not include an expected tuition rate figure for next year.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.