Indiana, PA - Indiana County

IUP slide not a concern or a surprise, prof says

by By SAM KUSIC skusic@indianagazette.net on October 20, 2013 2:00 AM

In the nest of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities, IUP always has been the biggest chick of the brood, at least for as long as anyone remembers.

But quoth the mavens, “No more.”

IUP has been surpassed by West Chester University of Pennsylvania, whose enrollment grew 2.8 percent this fall to 15,845 students. Meanwhile, IUP’s enrollment shrank 4.2 percent to 14,997 students, following the overall trend within the state system. It collectively lost 2,469 students.

But other than losing bragging rights, is it of any consequence for IUP?

No, not really, say several IUP professors and administrators, adding that any effects will mostly be all in the head. But in psychological sense, yes, it is, they say, because part of IUP’s identity long has been wrapped up in being the largest.

“Psychologically, this is big for IUP to be passed,” said IUP economics professor Will Radell.

All else being equal, IUP for years had stood apart from its 13 sister schools for three reasons: it was the biggest, it was the only one with university status (the rest were colleges), and it was the only one that granted doctoral degrees.

That began to change in 1983, when the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education came into being. Under the law that created it, the 13 other schools were given university status. For a long time IUP was still the biggest and the only one allowed to grant doctoral degrees.

But then in 2012, the state passed a law called the Higher Education Modernization Act, which, among other things, allowed the 13 other schools to grant a certain type of doctoral degree, although it affirmed that IUP would still be the only one that could confer the traditional doctor of philosophy degrees.

And IUP remained the largest.

But then this fall happened, with an expected decline in enrollment finally catching up to the university, which had seen four straight years of record enrollments.

That IUP’s enrollment has been surpassed, and surpassed by West Chester, isn’t a surprise, several said, considering the demographic pools from which the universities draw.

“This was foreseen many years ago,” said David LaPorte, an IUP psychology professor and chairman of the University Senate.

“We knew that the number of high school graduates would — and will continue to — dwindle. Since all of the schools in the system draw most heavily from the geographic area that they sit in, we knew that someday West Chester would have higher enrollment.”

IUP’s primary market is southwestern Pennsylvania, which is seeing the number of high schoolers shrink. Moreover, IUP is rural and relatively isolated, roughly 60 miles from a big city. West Chester is in suburban Philadelphia, off the Interstate 95 corridor.

And that area is growing.

“They’re sitting in the middle of a demographic gold mine,” said Radell, who for more than a year has been working on a scholarly economics-based look at IUP and West Chester. Its working title: “How West Chester Beat IUP.”

He said West Chester has been working diligently to grow itself, adding faculty and classroom space, whereas IUP’s focus has been streamlining its operations.

“The bottom line is that in economic terms it is very clear West Chester has been expanding true capacity and has not been worrying as much about efficiency as has been the case at IUP,” he said. “It’s amazing they haven’t passed us sooner.”

To be sure, there are funding implications that are connected to an institution’s size, but penalties and rewards are tied to whether an institution is growing or shrinking, not its enrollment size rank.

And IUP’s smaller size, not its reduced rank, is where it really hurts, LaPorte said.

“I really don’t think this means anything from a prestige standpoint,” he said.

In spite of what the enrollment numbers show, Radell said he’s not ready to concede defeat to West Chester because the true measure, the one that counts toward funding, is the number of full-time equivalents, not simple headcounts.

And based on the latest available numbers from the Joint State Government Commission, which annually looks at the state system’s performance, IUP still has the edge, with 14,587 full-time equivalents as compared with West Chester’s 14,008. Those numbers are from 2011-2012. The 2012-13 numbers won’t come out until February.

That aside, Radell said he expects that West Chester, at some point, will use its newfound status to bolster the argument that it, too, should be given the right to confer full-fledged doctoral degrees.

LaPorte said he believes that, going forward, it will be important for IUP to maintain its head start as a doctoral institution with high-quality doctoral programs, pointing to his program as an example.

“We have a national reputation, and the IUP degree our students possess is golden, opening doors for them at high levels in our profession. It will take many, many years for West Chester or any other school to achieve such a status, regardless of the number of students they have.”

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