Despite a return to a more normal semester this fall, Slippery Rock University saw a decrease of more than 400 students compared to the previous year.
That drop was led by a 6% decrease in undergraduate students this year, 494 students, which was the biggest decrease in the past four years. While the university has seen continued decreases with its undergraduate students, none of the yearly decreases since 2017 have been more than 100 students.
Last year, despite a move to online courses and the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, SRU fell just 19 students shy of its 2017 enrollment record. Still, administrators are confident fall 2022 will be a better year for enrollment numbers.
During a presentation to the university’s council of trustees in September, Amanda Yale, chief enrollment management officer for the university, told members that even with a large drop in students, numbers for next fall look promising.
“We’re excited,” Yale said. “Our team feels very strong … particularly with the freshmen class, that we can gain back what we lost.”
Those numbers, provided by the university, show almost double the total number of future students who have put down their deposit for fall 2022 compared to the previous year.
Still, the university faces budget shortfalls with increase costs and a tuition rate that has been frozen for the past three years. Back in September, SRU President William Behre told trustees that every 100 students equate to roughly $1 million in revenue for the university.
This year, the university would have faced an $8 million deficit if it had not received federal money related to the pandemic. If the university sees no increases to expenses or tuition next year, then it would have to add roughly 800 more students to the rolls, setting a new enrollment record.
Decreases in the number of students are not unique to SRU or Pennsylvania, however. John Rindy, assistant vice president for career and academic progress, warned trustees and university officials that reports show an estimated loss of 500,000 traditional college students starting in 2024.
Estimates from the Hechinger Report expect regional four-year institutions like Slippery Rock will lose 11% of their students by 2029.
Even with the decline of undergraduate students, SRU has continued to increase its graduate rolls, setting a new university record with 1,503 students enrolled this fall. The increases, although small over the past few years, have helped offset revenue losses as full-time graduate students pay over 50% more than their undergraduate counterparts.
Behre expects the number of students enrolled in those programs to continue to increase, especially with the physician assistants program which is artificially capped by the university while it works toward full accreditation.
The university has also hired Academic Partnerships, based in Texas, to promote master’s programs that can be completed fully online. Academic Partnerships will spend millions, compared to the $800,000 the university has for all programs, to market select degree programs across the country, for a cut of the tuition the university receives. According to Behre, so long as the university can more than double enrollment within the targeted programs in the next three years, the contract will have paid for itself.
The programs include hospitality and event management, accountancy, health and information management, data analytics and master of business administration. If those enrollment numbers do not increase in three years, then the university will have to look at a possible teach-out of the programs, Behre said.
One of the worst-hit programs is hospitality and event management, which has four students enrolled in the fall semester. The university’s headcount goal for the program is 25.
Whether the university will be able to rebound from the drop in enrollment remains unknown but the university also has one of the highest retention rates in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education at 83% and is one of eight state PASSHE schools to not be merging in the coming year. Coupled with the increased enrollment of graduate students, the university remains optimistic.
“We continue to be encouraged by our record number of graduate students and the persistence of all our students,” Yale said. “The pandemic brings about many challenges for all colleges and universities as well as students and their families. Despite these challenges, people are recognizing the value of an SRU education and the caring, learning community that we provide to help students succeed.”