Chatham University's freshman numbers wither

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Of the pressures pushing Chatham University's undergraduate women's college toward a historic decision to go coed, perhaps none is as severe as this: Its total of first-time freshmen who study full time is half what it was five years ago.

And the losses are projected to continue, university officials say.

Campus leaders who tonight will face what is expected to be a contentious meeting of alumnae released figures Tuesday showing that since peaking in 2008, traditional enrollment of freshmen has dropped within the college by 48 percent from 176 students to 92 this year.

This fall's total is projected to decline further to 85 students, even with recruiting efforts.

Transfers into Chatham have generally held steady, administrators said. But they are not enough to offset traditional freshmen declines, an ominous prospect for a tuition-dependent university that already has used growth in graduate and other programs to subsidize losses within its single-sex college.

"I'd say in three to five years it would start to get difficult," said Walter Fowler, Chatham's senior vice president for finance. "It would really be cash negative. We couldn't grow the other programs enough to make up for the declines."

Even after adding in transfer students, Chatham says total first-year enrollment this year is 156 students, down from 250 in 2008.

Tonight's meeting is the first in-person chance alumnae will have on the Shadyside campus to be briefed on and respond to arguments for why school trustees could vote by June on whether to admit the first male undergraduates since Chatham's founding in 1869. Chatham president Esther Barazzone and a number of trustees are expected to attend.

Chatham officials said the 6 p.m. session in Eddy Theatre will be closed to the news media. But other closed gatherings, including one for alumnae in Philadelphia on Sunday, offered insight into what is likely to be discussed tonight.

For instance, Chatham told alumnae Sunday that a third of its undergraduate majors have five or fewer students in them. It suggested that coed graduate programs and the single-sex women's college appear on almost opposite paths.

In 2008, Chatham had the equivalent of 702 full-time undergraduate women, a number that has dropped to 543, spokesman Bill Campbell said Tuesday. If the downward trend continues, he added, "We could have total enrollment of 320 students within five years.

"That's just an unsustainable trajectory [from] a budgetary perspective, a student experience perspective and a quality perspective," he said.

Graduate programs, meanwhile, have grown from their infancy of 90 in 1994 to 798 in 2008 to 984 as of this year.

Alumnae fighting to keep the college single-sex say about 100 graduates have signed up for tonight's session. In interviews, some say they do not disagree that the enrollment trends are troubling but say they are also concerned by conflicting numbers and are not yet convinced Chatham acted decisively as the enrollment soured in a bad economy after 2008.

"They absolutely have a point that the numbers are too small, but when did they know it was a problem and why didn't they tell us so we could do something?" asked Alexa New, a 2008 graduate from Cleveland who is a spokeswoman for what has been dubbed the Save Chatham movement. "This is a powerful network of alumnae throughout the country who would support them."

She said the group recognizes Chatham's right to bar news media tonight but is disappointed nevertheless.

"We're talking about 145 years of history here. It's a critical decision. We need input from all our stakeholders -- and that includes the general community -- in addition to those they have reached out to including students and parents," she said. "The media play an important role in helping spread the word to those key stakeholders."

Mr. Fowler said Chatham needs to take action to safeguard its financial health. He said the nearly 2,200-student university with its roughly $50 million budget had operating cash flow for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, that was in the black by about $300,000. "That's pretty thin," he said.

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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