California dreamin': State university's enrollment has increased nearly 45% in a decade

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Think you can guess the location of Pennsylvania's fastest growing state university?

It's not in a suburb of Philadelphia, the state's largest city, or any of the expanding communities in Pennsylvania's midsection.

As it turns out, the university with an enrollment nearly 45 percent larger than a decade ago is in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, a place not exactly teeming with college-age prospects.

For years, says campus President Angelo Armenti Jr., recruiters at his school -- California University of Pennsylvania -- toiled in counties where the death rate was higher than the birth rate.

"We had to find students elsewhere or be condemned to shrinking," he said.

And it found plenty.

A school once so worried about enrollment losses that it pondered a name change in 2001 invested $125 million to replace its aging dormitories with suite-style apartments. It beefed up its marketing and targeted its recruiting to the eastern part of the state, including Philadelphia, as well as towns all along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

It pushed into online learning so aggressively that by last year, it counted more students from the state of California than from the neighboring states of Maryland, New York or West Virginia.

And Dr. Armenti did what his own head of enrollment at the time advised against: He turned away more students. Even as California set a goal of drumming up enrollment, it tightened admission standards.

"I remember a phrase he used: You're known by whom you reject," said J. Drew McGukin, a former associate provost who worked in admissions and now teaches communication studies.

Few dispute that the strategy has filled classroom seats in California, a one-traffic-light town about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh. Still, not everyone on campus is thrilled with how growth has transformed the school.

The most commonly heard complaints -- rising class sizes, closed-off course sections and lack of parking -- mirror what's heard elsewhere in the 112,597-student State System of Higher Education, where enrollment since 1998 has grown by almost 19 percent.

Such complaints may get louder this fall if the state's funding crisis means the 14 universities must absorb a projected 3 percent to 4 percent enrollment increase with no additional state funding.

"There's a squeeze," said Kevin Kodish, spokesman for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the faculty union. "Class size is a constant area of concern on the campuses."

Since becoming president in 1992, Dr. Armenti has had his share of scrapes with California's faculty, surviving two votes of no confidence over issues including leadership style, campus morale and faculty firings. He was bent on making sure the campus survived something else -- its seeming demographic fate.

During his first four years in the job, enrollment declined by nearly 800 students. It reached a low of just over 5,600 in 1996.

A major part of the school's response was development of Cal U Global Online, an entirely Internet-based program with 27 offerings, 15 of them master's degrees. Its enrollment, now totaling 1,355 students, accounted for half the school's growth by tapping far-flung markets of working adults, including active-duty military personnel able to take courses on their bases day or night.

The school also worked to make the campus more attractive to traditional students. As the first of the 14 state universities to fully eliminate traditional dorms, California gained an edge in marketing to teens turned off by group showers and standard two-in-a-room accommodations.

"Our residence halls have been 100 percent occupied since the day we opened them," Dr. Armenti said last week.

That's a far cry from the buildings they replaced. "We couldn't fill them," he said.

Since 1998, California's head count enrollment has grown from 5,880 to 8,519 students, according to State System data. Once one of the smaller of the 14 schools, its rank changed from ninth largest in 1998 to fifth largest as of last year.

Its 10-year growth eclipses that of other top gainers in the State System, including Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, which grew by nearly 42 percent; Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, which has risen by almost 32 percent; and East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, up by nearly 25 percent.

After California, the fastest growing state school in Western Pennsylvania is Slippery Rock University, up by just over 22 percent since 1998.

The influx at California hasn't hurt the average SAT score of incoming freshmen. It rose during those years, from 945 to 1028. And the share who make it to their sophomore year, 79 percent, is fifth best among the 14 schools, according to State System data.

Still, the 31 percent of California's undergraduates who finish a bachelor's degree within four years continues to lag behind the State System average and is ninth among the schools.

Asked why, Dr. Armenti said the school has a higher share of first- generation students who inevitably struggle financially and sometimes interrupt their studies. He said complaints over the years by students that they can't get courses needed to graduate on time largely have been addressed.

But some students disagree.

Jesi Guthrie, 37, an elementary education major from Elizabeth Township due to graduate in May, said the lack of availability of courses has added at least a semester to her stay. One class she can't land a seat in is secondary field experience.

"This is my second semester trying to get it," said Ms. Guthrie, her voice tinged with frustration as she stood just outside a campus hall. "Getting into a class is just ridiculous."

Yet even those with complaints about class size or availability said the university looks better. The clock atop historic Old Main still marks the hour as it has for generations, its tolling a quaint reminder of California's founding in 1852 as an academy and later a normal school.

But these days, what's on the other side of the school's well-kept green is just as striking.

New student residences line the property, along with Duda Hall, a modern liberal arts classroom building completed in 2007. Two brick observation towers added the same year overlook California's main entrance, giving the 92-acre lower campus and its red brick buildings the air of a private university.

"You have to give Dr. Armenti his due," said Rick Cumings, associate professor of communication studies. "The campus has never looked nicer. Facility-wise, it's drop-dead gorgeous."

Still, appearance doesn't change the upward creep in class sizes that he and other faculty said could damage the quality of instruction if unchecked. In his own department, he said, the Survey of Radio, TV and Film class, which once accommodated 45 students, now typically enrolls 90 and sometimes more.

Theatre and Dance department Chairman Michael Slavin is of two minds. On the one hand, he said, California's growth has benefited faculty generally and been a boon to smaller departments like his.

But the trend toward larger introductory classes means students are more likely to take multiple choice tests instead of essay-based exams, which take longer to grade but can be more beneficial to students.

"A lot of times, the size of the class is determined by how many seats there are, not the needs of the student," said Dr. Slavin, who is a vice president of the faculty union's campus chapter.

Adding to faculty consternation is the prospect that parking, now free, could soon cost as much as $700 a year once employee spaces are shifted to accommodate a new $54-million convocation center, due to be built on the site of existing car lots. The school says it had limited choices for the center site and needs parking revenue to offset costs of moving and maintaining those parking spots.

Crews demolishing one campus building in the name of growth left standing a portion that holds an outdoor sculpture: Alan Cottrill's "Ascent of Humanity," a collection of 15 human figures, each 8 to 10 feet tall that rise along the remnants of two walls, as if reaching for the heavens.

It's a fitting image for a campus where questions about rising enrollment are being asked increasingly by faculty such as Dr. Cumings.

"How high can we realistically go before we run out of room?"

Bill Schackner can be reached at or 412-263-1977. First Published June 21, 2009 4:00 AM


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