Elizabeth Pompe, 19, a freshman at Penn State University-Beaver, says she got an offer to become a residence hall assistant this fall, but with one big catch.
She'll only get the job if her school can recruit enough students to fill up empty rooms in her dormitory.
An estimated 1 in 4 beds is unoccupied at Beaver, where fall enrollment this school year fell by 13 percent, according to Penn State data. At the university's Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport, the dorm occupancy rate is not much better at 78 percent amid a 9 percent enrollment slide there.
And at Penn State Mont Alto near Chambersburg, about 3 of every 10 beds are unused, with enrollment down 9 percent this school year.
It's no secret that a drop in the number of high school graduates -- particularly in Western Pennsylvania -- is one reason enrollment at many public and private institutions is soft.
But the branch-campus declines nevertheless are noteworthy for Penn State, a campus system with a powerful brand that for two decades has touted its long admissions reach.
Penn State leaders, including president Rodney Erickson, have described the university's overall enrollment this year of nearly 97,000 students as steady, thanks to a surge in online learners and a slight uptick in population on the main campus to 45,351 students.
Penn State in 2012 continued to receive more SAT scores sent by request of high school students than any other university in the nation, according to the College Board.
Enrollment figures "continue to reflect the university's strength in attracting the best students, from Pennsylvania and around the world," Rob Pangborn, interim executive vice president and provost, said in a statement when fall enrollment was announced. "The university continues to be among the most popular in the nation."
Still, the decline of 1,784 students at all Penn State locations other than the main campus this fall was the biggest one-year dip in three decades, university records indicate. Were it not for the 1,670-student, or 16 percent, increase in online students through Penn State's World Campus, total Penn State enrollment would have been down this year by 1,627 students, instead of up by 43.
Sixteen of Penn State's 19 commonwealth campuses saw declines averaging about 4 percent.
But with losses at 11 locations around the state either at or approaching double digits, there is discernible unease that has even made its way into classroom discussions, some students said. At Beaver, it has put in limbo Ms. Pompe's plan to join the staff in Harmony Hall, the campus's sole dormitory.
"There's not enough people in there right now to hire as many people as they normally would," she said.
'Trend doesn't look good'
Efforts by Penn State to shore up enrollment, at least in Western Pennsylvania, are evident in billboard, radio and television advertising. The matter even surfaced at a Penn State board of trustees meeting this month during a review of the university's housing construction and renovation plans.
Trustee Joel Myers asked about the five-year drop of Beaver's dorm occupancy rate from 94 percent to 74 percent, Greater Allegheny's decline from 96 percent to 78 percent, and Mont Alto's decline from 98 percent to 71 percent.
He said the numbers are relatively small because each campus enrolls 1,100 students or fewer. But just the same, he asked how long the buildings supported by room fees could sustain themselves if fewer people were paying to live there.
"The trend doesn't look good," he said.
Gail Ann Hurley, Penn State associate vice president for auxiliary and business services, acknowledged concerns in the western half of the state, but said occupancy rates at most campuses that have dorms are higher than 90 percent, and at some locations, including Behrend and Altoona, the dorms are at or near capacity.
"If you were to look at our occupancy trends over a longer period of time, you would find that there have been similar ups and downs," she said in an email to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Although the current trend line at Beaver, Greater Allegheny and Mont Alto concerns us, it does not alarm us."
This has not been an easy time for Penn State.
For 16 months, the state's flagship public university has been awash in unflattering publicity related to the child sex-abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach now in prison for sexual attacks on 10 boys over a decade, some on campus.
University officials, though, say the enrollment losses are tied less to Sandusky fallout than to demographic and economic issues.
They cite a decline in numbers of students enrolled simultaneously in high school and college, continued erosion of demand for associate degrees, and a shift in certain graduate programs toward online instruction.
Others point to steadily rising tuition prices and limits to what people will pay in a bad economy, even for a brand name education.
Two consecutive annual comparison surveys by the U.S. Department of Education found tuition and fees on Penn State's main campus were the highest nationally among public four-year schools. Its branch rates are lower, but still thousands of dollars above rates charged by the 14 universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education.
State System tuition and fees for 2012-13 ranged by campus from $8,343 to $9,154. By comparison, tuition and fees at Penn State's commonwealth campuses and its online World Campus ranged from $13,356 to $13,900.
Such disparity was not lost on then-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2009, when he criticized Penn State's pricing policies. He said he had no quarrel with higher tuition on the main campus of a research university like Penn State.
"But the 20-plus satellite campuses that Penn State has are not research institutions. They are very similar to our [State System], and in many cases the campuses are not even as nice," he said.
But don't tell that to Penn State Beaver students such as Jennifer Bacvinskas, 19, a sophomore communications major from Dormont. She said she likes the intimate learning environment of a campus with fewer than 800 students that is smaller than some high schools.
"You feel a lot more at home," she said.
Beaver's tranquil campus with a pond near its main entrance and gentle slopes has a community small enough that individual photos of students are displayed on a wall inside the student center. So are miniature flags of China, South Korea, Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia, representing the international flavor on a campus that is recruiting far beyond its typical territory.
Sitting in the Brodhead Bistro, an eatery accessible from the student center's lower level, Ms. Pompe said she never considered going to a lower-priced university. She noted the relationship often touted by Penn State between the school and employers looking to recruit.
"Penn State is the No. 1 university people are looking to hire people from," said Ms. Pompe, an information sciences and technology major from Burgettstown. "I want to get a good job when I graduate. I'm not here for nothing."
But as much as she loves her experience on campus, she said, she believes publicity from the sex-abuse scandal and alleged Penn State cover-up have left the university's image "a little tarnished."
Public university woes
Penn State is not the only public university seeing declines.
Eleven of the 14 universities belonging to the State System saw declines, including all Western Pennsylvania campuses except Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh also experienced enrollment declines on all of its campuses, except for the main campus in Oakland.
Pennsylvania is among 17 states forecast to see declines between 5 percent and 15 percent in the number of high school graduates during the next few years, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
Having peaked at about 150,000 students in 2009-10, the number of Pennsylvania high school graduates is forecast to decline to 137,026 by 2015-16. It will rebound in following years, but through 2027-28 it is forecast to go no higher than 143,750.
Some wonder whether price will be an additional drag on future enrollment in this state, among them Ron Cowell, president of The Education Policy and Leadership Center, an independent not-for-profit organization based in Harrisburg.
He noted the link between higher public campus prices in this state and Pennsylvania's perennial rank near the bottom of the 50 states in dollar support to public higher education.
"The fact that Pennsylvania continues to have among the highest public sector tuition rates in the country, and the fact that Pennsylvania students ... graduate from public universities with some of the highest indebtedness in the country, suggest that selling public higher education institutions in Pennsylvania may become more difficult in the future," he said.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.