August 4, 2008

Number of Area College Freshmen Rising, but Not for Long: Data

By Andrew M. Seder, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Aug. 4--When classes begin this month, all but one area college is anticipating an increase in freshman enrollment from last year.

For most schools, that's become an annual event, but the upward trend could be coming to an end in the next few years.

Data depict a large decrease in students graduating from high schools in the Northeast United States and in Pennsylvania during the next six years. That comes after a five-year streak of increases. King's College and Misericordia University are expecting record numbers, and Keystone College in LaPlume will likely set an incoming freshman record for four-year-degree students.

Wilkes University is the only one of the seven area schools anticipating a decrease, but spokeswoman Christine Tondrick said that was expected and in line with the school's long-term strategic plan that limited the number of freshman this year to about 40 fewer than it allowed to enroll in 2007.

College officials last week provided enrollment figures and estimated number of freshmen for the coming school year -- numbers that might change in the coming weeks.

Dwayne Hilton, director of student and enrollment services at Penn State Hazleton, said the entire Penn State system has seen a continuous climb in new students during the past five years. An increase of about 100 from the previous year has been the trend at the Hazleton campus the past three years. That will end this year with projections that freshman figures will remain stable compared to last fall.

Hilton said 1,232 freshmen attended classes in 2007 and the incoming class is expected to be the same, or slightly higher.

A national expert on higher education trends said this year's lower-than-normal increase is a sign of things to come.

Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers based in Boulder, Colo., said data tracking high school graduates in individual states, regions and the nation point to a slowdown and eventual decrease in the number of incoming freshmen at Northeastern United States colleges.

Because the area colleges overwhelmingly draw from Pennsylvania and the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, they'll be competing for a smaller student pool, Lingenfelter said. The number of graduating high school seniors in Pennsylvania will decrease by 12,000 during the next five years. The number peaked at 150,000 this year and is predicted to drop to 138,000 in 2013, according to data supplied by Lingenfelter.

Those numbers do not come as a surprise to most area college officials, who said they've been aware of the data for some time.

Teresa Peck, associate vice president for enrollment and academic services at King's College, said the number of incoming students won't be the only change -- their dynamics will be different, too.

"What our student looks like may be changing," she said. A growing Latino population and an increase in adult learners heading back to school to finish or earn a degree will also change the landscape of area colleges, she said.

And while she agreed a slowdown in incoming class size increases is on the horizon, it's not going to be a huge difference.

"There's no indication that there's going to be some cliff that we'll all fall off," she said.

Dr. John Sumansky, who helped create the long-term strategic plan for Misericordia about six years ago, said the anticipated decrease in the high school student pool was not only known but figured into his school's plan that's in effect through the 2009-10 academic year.

Area colleges, he said, pull from essentially the same region and during the next five years will compete for a smaller pool.

"It's a shrinking pool of high school graduates through 2013. Any shrinkage is adverse (to all area schools)," Sumansky said.

His statistics show Luzerne County high school graduates will decrease during the next five years, but not at such a steep pace as the Northeastern United States as a whole. His research shows an estimated 3,463 students graduating from high schools in Luzerne County in June 2009. By 2013, the figure drops to 3,324.

"These don't look like big numbers, but they are," Sumansky said.

Peck said Pennsylvania is not alone.

"I think that's going to be true nationwide, the decrease in full-time undergraduate students," Peck said.

Lingenfelter said the shockwaves shouldn't have been felt until next year, but the poor economy and high price of gas might have accelerated the process.

Sumansky said he didn't believe the economy played much of a role, but Penn State's Hilton agreed with Lingenfelter's theory.

"I think the combination of the economy and the lower number of high school graduates (are to blame)," Hilton said.

Not all schools are impacted by that combination. In fact, one school seems to be benefiting.

The largest gain of year-to-year numbers at area schools is expected at Luzerne County Community College, which is anticipating 2,115 new students -- an increase of about 104 from last year. LCCC offers the lowest per-credit and per-semester cost of the seven schools.

President Thomas Leary said LCCC has seen enrollment increases year to year but unlike other area colleges, he predicts increases during the next five years and beyond. He said the economy is likely at play but said a changing job market that's encouraging more adult learners to return to school for continuing education or to learn a trade also plays a role.

He also said other schools in the region might benefit from the economy and a price of gas that might keep students closer to home.

"I'm hoping we can all buck the trend," Leary said.

SCHOOL 2007 Fall 2008 Fall* Percent Change LCCCⓚⓚⓚⓚâƒâƒ 2,011 2,115 +5.2 Misericordia 364 380 +4.4 PSU WBâƒâ“š 213 222 +4.2 Keystone⃠491 500 +1.8 King'sâƒâƒâ“š 557 565 +1.4 PSU Hazleton 1,232 1,235 +0.2 Wilkesâƒâƒâ“š 620 568 -8.4

* Anticipated figures

Andrew M. Seder, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 570-829-7269.


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