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Enrollment has been dropping for seven years at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, as has been the case — and may continue to be the case — for IUP and other schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

It may be a significant part of a puzzle for IUP and the communities surrounding it to solve.

“The number of high school graduates in Pennsylvania is expected to continue its decline, especially after 2025,” according to demographic information recently supplied by PASSHE. “This will further depress enrollment of ‘traditional’ students, who today represent almost 90 percent of all undergraduates enrolled at the system universities. We must prepare for this future.”

The decline in enrollment goes along with a recent population decline. The U.S. Bureau of the Census recently said the estimated population of the county declined from 88,880, on April 1, 2010, to 84,501, as of July 1, 2018.

According to federal census figures compiled by PASSHE, between 2010 and 2017 most counties around Indiana had declines in population. Some during that time showed net increases, such as Allegheny and Washington, but showed declines in 2018 estimates released last week by the census bureau.

“This is a regional, southwestern Pennsylvania issue,” said Byron Stauffer Jr., executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development. “So if you compare us to other counties and other communities, you will find similar demographic trends.”

Enrollment has gone up and down at IUP in the 21st century — mostly down, especially since the fall of 2012 when Indiana reached a peak fall enrollment for credit programs of 15,379.

That was the last of four straight years of record enrollment in credit programs, eclipsing the 1991 record of 14,620. It capped a rise from 13,373 by the fall of 2000, after which the pendulum swung in the other direction.

In the fall of 2018 there were 11,325 in credit programs at IUP, 9,215 undergraduates, 2,110 graduate students. Add culinary arts and criminal justice academies and the overall total in the fall of 2018 was 11,581 enrolled at IUP.

It may get worse. Dr. Patricia McCarthy, IUP vice president for enrollment management, said Indiana is preparing for that.

“It is really important to maintain the academic quality of the students who attend IUP,” McCarthy said. “We are making strategic, data-driven decisions with which to continue to recruit students who are a great fit for IUP.”

McCarthy said the grade-point average of those enrolling for the fall of 2019 average is just under 3.4, up from 3.27 this past fall.

State Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, said IUP and the other state-owned universities have to offer rates that are competitive with state-related schools such as Pitt or Penn State.

“You need to get (for) students who are in the state system quality education at an affordable cost,” Struzzi said.

Struzzi also wants to see an elimination of property tax.

“It would be a huge incentive for people who want to live here,” he said.

Struzzi attended PASSHE Chancellor Dr. Daniel Greenstein’s forum with IUP students, faculty, staff and neighbors last week at the Hadley Union Building on campus. He said he was “extremely alarmed” with Greenstein’s projections for IUP and the future workforce, but took time to talk with Greenstein one-on-one.

“I think he has a good vision,” Struzzi said.

Dave Reed, Struzzi’s predecessor in the 62nd Legislative District and a regional president of First Commonwealth Bank, sees IUP “well on the way to evolving their offerings” so they match future job needs.

“At the end of the day, it will make the community stronger,” Reed said.

Reed also pointed to the impact of “aging demographics” on IUP and other schools across the country.

Those demographics will be a factor next year. April 1, 2020, is Census Day, and Stauffer’s office will be involved.

“We will be working with all of our municipalities and all of our institutions,” Stauffer said. “So, theoretically, the students have to be counted in the communities in which they reside. That could have a profound 10-year impact for Community Development Block Grant dollars and other sorts of funds based on population.”

Amid all this, the impact of a slide in enrollment is mixed. IUP remains the largest employer in Indiana County.

“We are continuing to contribute to the economic vitality of the community,” McCarthy said.

Mark Hilliard, Struzzi’s successor as president of the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, wants to get students more involved in businesses, through jobs and internships, and businesses more involved in campus activities.

Stauffer said a smaller population and by extension a smaller enrollment means fewer people eating at restaurants, fewer people buying goods and services.

“That all ripples through the economy,” he said. “We see what it is doing to some of the rental markets in town.”

Hilliard said the focus of his membership has been on the declining population of Indiana County as a whole.

“They don’t tend to rely on the student population in terms of what they anticipate,” Hilliard said. “That is not something among their top challenges, not in the top five, maybe not in the top 10.”

“With fewer students, we’re seeing more ‘For Lease’ signs,” Stauffer said. “There is probably a larger inventory of rental units then there are students.”

Some property management firms contacted for this story declined to be interviewed. However, Struzzi’s wife is an agent for Kuzneski & Lockard Inc.

“There’s a lot of property for sale now,” Jim Struzzi said. “It is a slow time.”

However, “location, location, location” may be a factor.

“Some are doing very well, depending on their proximity (to campus),” Struzzi said. “Others are stringing along.”

Tom Moreau is branch manager at Berkshire Hathaway in Indiana, a company that does not do property management.

“People are getting out of the business, selling their places,” said Moreau. “We have seen a trend as far as student rentals for sales and not getting the prices they could have gotten a few years ago. There aren’t a lot of people who want to get into student housing.”

However, he also sees the story as co-chairman of the Indiana Landlords Association and as part-owner with his wife Tina in a rental business.

“I work full-time for Berkshire Hathaway and my wife runs the rental office,” Tom Moreau said.

Their business is 60 percent non-student, 40 percent student. And there is definitely a downswing, partly because of declining enrollment, partly because of the construction of new student housing on campus.

It used to be, Moreau said, that “we were done renting all of our apartments for the following year by Christmas.”

But the students aren’t rushing to rent housing as formerly was the case.

“We still have substantial vacancies,” Moreau said.

He said many owners of rental properties haven’t updated them.

“Not only are those buildings harder to sell, they’re harder to rent,” Moreau said.

Back on campus, McCarthy pressed another point she’s made at IUP Council of Trustees meetings.

“We have to make an effort toward retention and persistence of our students,” McCarthy said.

Retention refers to the ability to keep a freshman around for his or her sophomore year. IUP has set a goal of 80 percent retention by the fall of 2022, and expects to retain 72.7 percent of the freshman class for the fall of 2019.

Persistence refers to the ability to keep a freshman around to graduate.

Meanwhile, Hilliard said, “we want to find ways to keep students here after their graduation.”

“We have to find ways to bring more people back to the state,” Struzzi said. “To find more jobs, a better business climate, more opportunities, and a better tax structure.”

Jobs are on Stauffer’s mind, too, and not just on campus.

He points to “the Halliburtons of the world” and others in the natural gas industry, “having by and large migrated to other areas where there is more drilling activity.”

Also, Stauffer said, “people aren’t having as many kids as they used to have. There have been fewer births than there had been 10 years ago.”

IUP long was the largest PASSHE institution, but West Chester University of Pennsylvania rose to 15,411 enrolled in credit programs in the fall of 2012, passing IUP. Its enrollment continues to rise, to 17,527 this past fall.

“Although declines in the number of high school graduates in central and western Pennsylvania have resulted in enrollment decreases at nearly all other State System universities, WCU’s enrollment has grown steadily and annually for more than a decade,” according to a West Chester analysis of enrollment and finance data. “This trend is due to favorable demographics in the university’s principal service region (southeastern Pennsylvania) and purposeful efforts to manage enrollment in a highly competitive market (more than 100 colleges and universities are located within 50 miles of WCU’s main campus).”

Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate enrollment was in striking distance of IUP in the fall of 2018, 8,253 for the PASSHE institution on the northern end of the Susquehanna Valley, but its graduate enrollment was 671, larger only than Lock Haven (358), Mansfield (38) and Cheyney (0).

IUP no longer has the second-largest graduate enrollment in the system, edged out this past fall by California, 2,138 to 2,110, but Cal U has only 5,174 undergraduates to 9,215 for Indiana.

IUP fall credit-hour enrollment

2018: 11,325

2017: 12,316

2016: 12,853

2015: 13,775

2014: 14,369

2013: 14,728

2012: 15,379

2011: 15,132

2010: 15,126

2009: 14,638

2008: 14,310

2007: 14,018

2006: 14,248

2005: 14,081

2004: 13,998

2003: 13,868

2002: 13,671

2001: 13,457

2000: 13,410

Source: IUP