Pa. state system universities try to rein in student costs to reverse enrollment losses

The promise of a new $90 million science hall, suite-style dorms and a scenic oak grove aren’t bad selling points for a public university.

But these days, Indiana University of Pennsylvania can trumpet something else that might have seemed unlikely not long ago: It’s noticeably less expensive.

The typical total cost to live and study there is $23,862, a drop of almost $1,900 from a year ago, when IUP was Pennsylvania’s most expensive state-owned university.

In addition to freezing room and other fees for multiple years, IUP this year replaced per-credit pricing with a flat full-time tuition rate, cutting those costs by almost 20% for most in-state undergraduates. Out-of-state students will get the same break starting next fall.

“This isn’t just a big discount,” the school’s website says. “It’s a big commitment — to you, our students, no matter what state you come from.”

The moves at IUP are an example of what is happening across the State System of Higher Education, where a tuition freeze now in its fourth year and other price moves may be giving the state-owned universities a new tool to begin reversing enrollment loss.

Systemwide, the typical total for tuition, fees, room and board increased this year by less than 1% or $57, to $22,333, according to data examined by the Tribune-Review. That occurred with inflation running between 7% and 8% for much of the year.

The typical total price declined by $512 at East Stroudsburg University and by $100 at Commonwealth University’s Mansfield campus.

Charges remained the same at Slippery Rock, Shippensburg and PennWest universities, though a shift in student preference to a higher-priced housing option on the Edinboro campus led to higher numbers there.

As costs rose, enrollment dropped

Since 2010, the State System’s enrollment has plummeted by 34,957 students, or 29%. Its enrollment had once been nearly 120,000.

Declining high school graduate numbers in Pennsylvania are a big culprit, experts say. System leaders and others have also warned for years that too many students were being priced out of the market as tuition and fees rose and state investment in higher education lagged.

Campus costs not covered by financial aid are still too high, said State System Chancellor Daniel Greenstein. He’s hopeful that aggressive price containment will make students more likely to enroll and less likely to “stop out” or interrupt their studies.

“Research shows that most students who stop out do so for financial reasons. Half or more of those stop out for financial requirement of less than $1,000,” he said.

“We’re talking tens or hundreds of dollars — not even thousands,” he added. “I think we forget how many people are living on the margin, paycheck to paycheck.”

At IUP, enrollment has taken a drastic hit in recent years. Once the largest of the system schools, enrollment topped 15,000 in 2010 but stood at about 8,800 this fall.

Officials say it might be too soon to know the impact of reduced prices and annual financial aid that at IUP now tops $16 million, including a $1,000 housing scholarship added last year.

Stacy Hopkins, IUP’s executive director of undergraduate admissions, pointed to some encouraging signs.

IUP, like the other State System schools, saw a gain in new students this year, even though total enrollment was down. As of early this month, applications for fall 2023 totaled 7,665, up 943 from last year’s pace.

“We have been able to reduce our costs. Our scholarships are actually higher than they’ve ever been,” Hopkins said. “Those are really great selling points.”

Leyla Keita, 20, a junior business major from Mt. Lebanon, said she and her friends have noticed the price reduction as well as fewer people on campus.

“My freshman year was definitely the most expensive year I was here,” Keita said. “We’ve come to the consensus that the school is trying to incentivize more people to come here because the population of students has come down — honestly, a lot. It’s quieter here.”

Keita said she had considered transferring but decided to stay, largely because of the reduced tuition and generous financial aid.

Freezing tuition can only do so much

Officials at IUP are banking on the fall opening of the John J. and Char Kopchick Hall, a $90 million science and mathematics facility, as another selling point for the 354-acre main campus.

The State System is in the midst of a redesign. In July, it combined six of its 14 universities into two: PennWest was created by merging California, Clarion and Edinboro universities, and Commonwealth University by combining Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities.

State subsidies to higher education have typically been among the lowest in the nation, often ranking as low as 47th out of 50 states, according to Grapevine report data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and Illinois State University.

This year, the State System sought and received a major increase in state funding, from $477 million to $552 million.

For next year, the system is seeking a 3.8% increase, which would boost annual funding to $573.5 million. It also is asking for $112 million, mostly in financial aid, for students in fields with sizable worker shortages, including health care, engineering, education, social work and computer science.

“This funding request would benefit all of our students by allowing the system to freeze tuition for an unprecedented fifth year,” said Cynthia Shapira, State System board of governors chair.

That’s key to schools that serve working adults and the disadvantaged, said Andrew Koricich, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania and teaches at Appalachian State University in North Carolina while also serving as executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.

“It’s especially important in a state like Pennsylvania where state divestment has caused prices to soar at many institutions, basically all of the public four-year schools,” he said.

But freezing prices can sustain the system for only so long. Without additional aid, Koricich added, programs could suffer.

The State System is the least expensive university option in Pennsylvania, a fraction of what it costs to live and study on the main campuses of Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh.

The system price curbs are encouraging, but inflation means operating costs will still rise on campuses that already have seen program and job cuts, said Kenneth Mash, an East Stroudsburg professor and president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.

“It all goes back to what the allocation is going to be from the commonwealth,” he said.

The State System did not fall into a price predicament overnight.

Saddled with aging campus facilities, lagging state aid and too many empty classroom seats, it decided to go big two decades ago to better compete for students.

What followed was a $1 billion-plus building boom, much of it financed by debt, that focused less on classroom development than on new recreation centers, performance venues, upscale housing and restaurant-style eateries complete with demonstration cooking.

Athletic arenas sprang up in places including IUP and California. Aging rooms that accommodated two students with group shower stalls were replaced with higher-end, suite-style residences, first at California and then systemwide.

At Slippery Rock, a half-million-dollar waterfall adorned an exterior wall of a new student center.

The wow factor of these new developments helped fuel an enrollment surge to a peak of 119,513 students by 2010. But paying for them drove up student fees and stretched campus budgets as enrollment began a 12-year slump, falling to 84,556 by this year.

As one of a few State System schools that switched last decade from flat tuition for full-time, in-state students to more expensive per-credit pricing, IUP’s leaders faced criticism as declining enrollment worsened campus finances, leading to program cuts and fewer faculty spots.

In March, IUP President Michael Driscoll announced the return to flat, full-time tuition, reducing in-state charges to $7,716 a year for students taking 12 to 18 credits — a cut from $9,570 a year. He said it was part of a broader response to students and families.

“While this will be the next step in our affordability work, it won’t be the last,” he said.

Bill Schackner is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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