By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As they work to recoup enrollment losses, many of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities are confronting not only declines in population and high school graduates, but something else — the percentage of students who enroll but leave campus.
And while the universities all belong to the same State System of Higher Education, the rates at which they lose students are anything but uniform.
Systemwide, an average 78 percent of first-time full-time freshmen stay enrolled at least into their sophomore year. But 12 of the 14 schools fall short of that benchmark.
The rates were as low as 44 percent at Cheyney and 70 percent at both Edinboro and Lock Haven universities, and as high as 88 percent at West Chester and 83 percent at Slippery Rock.
The numbers are the most current figures available from the State System for campus-by-campus comparison. They involve students who became sophomores in fall 2014.
Factors from financial hardship and academic preparation to a simple change of career interest can drive decisions to leave. State System officials said that while more work on retention is needed, the schools’ rates collectively are a few percentage points above peer institutions that, like the State System, serve sizable numbers of low-income and first-generation college students
“They’re well within the norm for public higher education,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the Washington D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
That said, Mr. Nassirian said the issue is a big deal, even if it’s not clear what share of students give up or are simply studying somewhere else. “These days focus on retention is equally as important as first-year recruitment,” he said.
Last week, the State System hired a Boulder, Colo. nonprofit organization to develop recommendations for reordering the system, whose enrollment peaked at nearly 120,000 in 2010 and has since fallen by more than 14,000. The campuses face rising costs and lagging state aid, and every student departure after their first year or subsequent years on campus means less tuition revenue.
By fourth year, retention by campus ranged from 20 percent at Cheyney to 79 percent at West Chester, according to fall 2012 data, the most current fourth-year data available from the system
An executive with that nonprofit, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), said it’s too early to draw conclusions about whether consolidations or other system changes may be needed. But retention will be one part of a broader analysis of those schools, some of which have seen enrollments plunge by 30 percent or more.
“We’re certainly going to look at it,” said Dennis Jones, president emeritus of NCHEMS and part of a team that will travel to Pennsylvania. “Clearly, retention to the point of graduation is an important factor in boosting enrollment.”
It’s no mystery why the system would lose students before they graduate, Mr. Jones said. One reason, he explained, is that more so than a flagship public university, State System schools recruit students from families with no college experience.
“They don’t have support systems at home,” he said. “Because of finances, they get trapped into working more hours than they should.”
As for why rates within the system vary, officials said campus-based retention programs differ and that counties from which the schools draw most of their students vary. For instance, household incomes in suburban Philadelphia surrounding West Chester are different from Erie County, where Edinboro University is located.
Across the State System, the share of first-time full-time students with family incomes low enough to qualify for federal need-based Pell Grants averages 38 percent. But individual rates vary from 24 percent at West Chester to 73 percent at Cheyney
“When you drill down a little, you find sometimes even institutions that are ostensibly quite similar — they’re different,” Mr. Jones said.
At Slippery Rock, recruiting students likely to be a good fit and able to handle coursework is paired with efforts to keep them on track academically and socially once they arrive. It has helped the school boost first-year retention from 69 percent in the early 1990s to better than 80 percent.
Slippery Rock and West Chester are the only system schools to see enrollment gains since 2010.
“Enrollment increases don’t just come from recruitment,” said Amanda Yale, associate provost for enrollment management at Slippery Rock. “It also comes from retaining our students and graduating them.”
Cheyney has hired a retention specialist and taken other steps to reverse the worst retention showing in recent history and expects soon-to-be published data will show its retention rate has jumped to 65 percent, interim Cheyney President Frank Pogue said.
Other schools have stepped up efforts too, including Clarion, which opened a new Center for First Year Excellence.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG