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Some Penn. Schools See Enrollment Rise, Still Below 2019

Polling area colleges and universities, the Philadelphia Inquirer found that 13 counted overall enrollment being down from last fall, six cited an increase, seven said they were roughly the same, and six did not answer.

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(TNS) — At La Salle University, officials are hopeful that a 13 percent enrollment increase in this year’s freshman class signals a welcome post-pandemic turnaround.

It’s the first year since 2018 that La Salle enrolled more new students, including transfers, than the prior year. The number is bolstered by a 40 percent increase in nursing students and a boost in honors students, as the college continues to aggressively market its status as one of the top schools in the nation for return on investment, cited in a Georgetown University study, and its recent Carnegie reclassification from a regional university to a national one.

“We really feel good about that, and we’re looking to build on that momentum,” said new president Daniel J. Allen.

But the Catholic school in Philadelphia’s Belfield neighborhood still has a long way to go before its enrollment reaches pre-pandemic levels. Overall, La Salle’s enrollment this year is about 4,000, roughly the same as last year, but down from 4,900 in 2019.

Across the region, it’s shaping up to be another challenging enrollment year for many colleges. Since the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment nationally had fallen by 1.4 million, or 9.4 percent, as of last spring, according to a May report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Of 32 local schools queried: 13 reported that their overall enrollment was down from last fall (although many have seen a larger freshman class), six cited an increase, seven said they were roughly the same, and six did not answer. The Inquirer generally focused on colleges with acceptance rates of more than 50 percent, leaving out highly selective schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and some others, which don’t face the same kind of challenges filling their classes.

It’s still too early to tell whether this fall will signal the beginning of an upswing, or at least a respite before the next challenge, experts say.

“We are hoping we are coming out now from one of the most significant challenges we have faced in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president for research at the American Council on Education.


College enrollments are affected by a number of factors, including demographic shifts and economic trends, and colleges nationally are bracing for another hit in the middle of the decade.

“We are still facing an uphill battle right at the time when the number of high school graduates is about to enter a slight but sustained decline,” said David A; Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Community colleges have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. And several colleges, including Rosemont and Cabrini University, noted that more students have told them they are opting to put off college for well-paying jobs.

Cabrini, which estimates its freshman class is down 10 percent, also cited the keen competition among local schools.

“Many of our students come from [the] tri-state region, and in this saturated higher-education market, we’re all pulling from the same pool,” said spokesperson Matt Nestor.

The university also has noticed a more aggressive recruitment push from colleges outside the area, particularly from the Southeast, he said.

On the positive side, 11 other colleges, in addition to La Salle, took comfort in an increase in first-year students. Arcadia University in Glenside cited a 25 percent increase. Delaware Valley University said it enrolled its largest freshman class in six years. The 446 students represent an 18 percent increase from last year. Of note, said Kathy Payne, Delaware Valley’s vice president for enrollment management, was a rebound in students with high financial need, whose numbers had declined during the pandemic.

Hawkins noted that larger freshman classes seem to be something of a national trend and welcome surprise. He said he’s hopeful that colleges’ enrollment trajectory will return to pre-pandemic conditions but said that's somewhat dependent on whether schools can address equity issues and income gaps and whether a flood of federal financial aid during the crisis can somehow be sustained through governmental support.

“Without that, it will be difficult to sustain that momentum,” he said.


Some of the universities with bigger freshman classes became a little less selective, while others did not. La Salle, for example, admitted 86 percent of applicants for this fall’s class, up from 84 percent last year. West Chester, however, said it got more selective to draw its freshman class of 3,006 students, the largest in the school’s history; it accepted 85 percent, down from 89 percent the year before.

Some colleges cited sizable upticks in transfers, while others saw declines, fueled by the drop in community college students.

Holy Family University said its preliminary numbers show 213 transfer students, up 43 from last year, or more than 24 percent. The university attributed the “dramatic upswing” to “an intentional emphasis on transfer-friendly processes such as on-the-spot credit evaluations and strong community college relationships, as well as the introduction of new academic programs designed to meet workforce trends,” such as cybersecurity and computer information management.

Some colleges, including Rutgers-New Brunswick and Chestnut Hill College, declined to respond to the query, while others would not be specific. Pennsylvania State University said in a statement it was “cautiously optimistic” that the school would have “a slight increase” but offered no numbers.

St. Joseph’s University was an unusual case. Its enrollment is up, given its merger with University of the Sciences, which took effect last summer. But a spokesperson said that without the merger, St. Joe’s enrollment would have declined. The school did not respond to a request for its overall enrollment number.

Rutgers-Camden also did not respond to a query. But in August, first-year and transfer student enrollment had plummeted 27 percent compared with the same time last year. Meanwhile, Rutgers-Newark was down about 8 percent, while New Brunswick — the main campus and by far the largest — was up 5 percent.

At a board of governors’ meeting last week, however, chancellor Antonio D. Tillis presented updated figures that showed first-year and transfer enrollment down 15 percent and overall enrollment, 6,102, down 9.2 percent. There will be 654 fewer undergraduates on the campus this year, a drop of 13.5 percent, his data showed.

“While these numbers are not where we would like them to be, we are working to make sure that we understand causes for the downward trends and create strategies to mitigate them,” he told the board.


Cheyney University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania’s state system, charted a 10 percent enrollment increase this fall to 706 students, part of a 50 percent jump since 2018.

The university, which at one time had been struggling with enrollment and finances, has been rebounding in recent years, while other universities in Pennsylvania’s state system have seen enrollment fall.

President Aaron A. Walton said Cheyney is focusing on every area to drive improvement, including retention — which was affected by the pandemic — the recruitment of transfer students, and offering internship opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and other fields. Of Cheyney’s accepted students, 25 percent were planning to go into STEM fields this year, up from 8 percent in 2017, he said.

“This is not happening by chance. It’s a strategy,” Walton said. “It was a lot of hard work over a period of time to get us where we are. I’m encouraged.”

The school also last year held a retention summit, and has seen improvement. This year, 67 percent of freshmen returned, which was up from the year before.

The university also has partnered with the Philadelphia School District to help a cohort of paraprofessionals complete their teaching degrees, alleviating the educator shortage and in turn driving up Cheyney’s enrollment.

Rowan University reports that its overall enrollment, 19,568, has just about reached pre-pandemic levels. Its freshman and transfer numbers are up considerably, spokesperson Joe Cardona said.

The largest percentage jump in overall enrollment came at Eastern University in St. Davids, which reported having 5,271 students, a 29 percent increase from last year and a 52 percent increase from 2020. One of the biggest reasons, the school said, is Eastern’s new low-price “life flex” online graduate programs, which have attracted 3,300 students.

The school said its MBA in organizational management and master’s in data science cost $9,900 and can be finished in 10 months, while a master’s in social work costs $14,400 for students with advanced standing and can take two years. The university is planning to launch a similar “life flex” program for undergraduates.

The school also cited new athletic programs as a reason for the increase. Eastern started a football team, which brought in 94 students, among 273 new student athletes this fall.

At La Salle, Allen, the president, said he’s looking forward to more growth following the upswing in freshmen. The school plans to reassert itself in the regional market, including New York, Washington, and New England, as the pandemic ebbs and students may be more likely to venture farther from home. It also will look to attract students in other areas of the country with population growth, as well as internationally, he said.

“We’re not quite to pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “But we’re obviously on the path in that direction.”

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.