This academic year, the first fully open amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the first for a highly restructured system, is a major test for state universities operated by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Enrollment at the 14 campuses fell by approximately 25%, from 120,000 in 2010-2011 to 89,000 for the 2021-2022 school year. Official registrations for this year are expected to show another overall decline of around 4.5%, to around 85,000.

However, this decline masks a real reason for optimism. This year’s freshman class is between 5% and 7% larger than the 2021-22 freshman class. Whether this signals a real reversal in the fortunes of the system remains to be seen. But as system chancellor Daniel Greenstein said, “If you’re going to fold your registration, you have to start with your incoming class.”

The system is grappling with the overall decline in college enrollment nationwide of about 9.4% since the start of the pandemic, but its problems are more acute for multiple reasons. It maintains campuses in areas that have been particularly hard hit by population decline, and the system is not as well funded as many of its counterparts in other states.

This year, the universities of Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield were combined into the Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania. But that hasn’t stopped the drop in enrollment. Greenstein estimated that overall enrollment was down about 3% at these campuses and freshman enrollment was down about 5%.

The system also consolidated Clarion, California, and Edinboro universities into Pennsylvania Western University. Overall enrollment there was down about 11%, but freshman enrollment was up about 1.5%, Greenstein said.

Other schools in the system are Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Indiana, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Millersville, and West Chester universities. East Stroudsburg saw a 46% increase in the freshman class, including transfers, but that was largely due to the last class being tiny due to the pandemic.

It appears that some of the system’s initiatives, beyond consolidations, have had a positive impact, particularly in keeping tuition flat and offering more job-specific programs.

The legislature should help the system maintain its momentum by providing enough funding and assistance to maintain tuition fees.

— Voices of the citizens of Wilkes-Barre



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