'Bold moves' needed to save Edinboro, president says
February 17, 2017 12:00 AM
Edinboro University's Frank G. Pogue Student Center. The university has lost 29 percent of its enrollment since 2010.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Edinboro University president H. Fred Walker gave a blunt assessment of campus enrollment, academics and finances Thursday, telling an audience that subpar graduation and retention rates and other woes require transformative action for the school to survive.
The campus town hall meeting was called to share early results of an analysis underway at Edinboro, which has lost 29 percent of its enrollment since 2010. It took place as all 14 state-owned universities are undergoing a collective review by the State System of Higher Education, but the Edinboro study is in addition to that review, officials said.
The data Mr. Walker cited, including a worsening budget deficit that has forced Edinboro to tap its reserves, is tied at least partly to woes felt by other universities. They include rising operational costs, stagnant state support and declining numbers of high school graduates in Pennsylvania.
But Mr. Walker, Edinboro’s president since July, said the school has fared significantly worse by some measures than other system campuses. He said swift moves are needed to improve student success, balance revenues and expenses and align academic programs to better meet student and employer needs.
Edinboro already has tightened admission requirements for this fall to lower an acceptance rate that has topped 99 percent, bringing students to campus who struggle and then leave at excessive rates, Mr. Walker said.
“We didn’t get into this thing overnight, and we’re not getting out of it overnight,” he said. “We have a path forward, but I want you to understand the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.”
Mr. Walker told some 250 employees, students, alumni, university trustees and others gathered inside the student union that, “We will reorient this entire university.”
Edinboro’s four- and six-year graduation rates, at 27 and 49 percent, respectively, are second worst among the state-owned universities after Cheyney’s graduation rates of 8 and 18 percent, he said. The system’s average four- and six-year graduation rates are 39 and 60 percent. Slippery Rock University has the highest four-year rate at 50 percent, and West Chester University has the highest six-year rate at 71 percent.
Many Edinboro students are gone long before their senior year.
“We’re losing about 30 percent of our freshman class. These are kids who start here their freshman year, and they’re not here a year later,” Mr. Walker said.
Officials said that is 8 percentage points higher than the systemwide freshman attrition rate. Attrition by the fourth year is nearly 43 percent, they said.
“This should be alarming to everyone. It is to me,” the president said. “Student success ... has to be the operating parameter and imperative for this university to stay alive. I can’t emphasize this enough.”
In recent years, a significant share of enrollment loss has involved students who choose to study in Pennsylvania but bypass Edinboro, he said. The scramble to fill seats has impacted admission standards.
Edinboro is not an open enrollment university, but it’s close, he said. The university has accepted nearly 97 percent of its applicants over the past three years, and in fall 2014, it accepted 99.3 percent. The freshman class SAT average was 971 that year and improved to 986 this fall, spokesman Jeffrey Hileman said.
“As our enrollments have decreased, the admissions funnel has opened and opened and opened to admit more students, so we can maintain our operating revenues and make payroll,” Mr. Walker said. “We have taken into this university a large number of students who are struggling academically and leave the university because it’s not a good fit.”
The school with 6,200 students projects a $6.2 million deficit this fiscal year, up from $3.6 million since September due to labor contracts and other costs.
Michael Bucell, president of the faculty union at Edinboro, said concerns about admission standards are familiar.
“The union has been arguing vociferously for a decade, and probably two, that we should be increasing our admission standards, and management has chosen not to do that,” he said. “They moved in an open-access direction.”
But he said his school is far from alone in facing such stresses and said the public, often critical of the campuses, needs to understand the consequences of funding a state university system at 1999 levels. “It’s kind of like starving people and then blaming them for being hungry,” he said
The 14 state-owned universities also include: Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville and Shippensburg.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.
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