University: less undergrad students committing, while grad programs are thriving

Written By Caitlyn Scott , Co-News Editor

Point Park and other universities across the United States have experienced significant declines in undergraduate student enrollment due to COVID-19, while also seeing an increase in students enrolling in graduate programs.

The shrinking undergraduate student population has been an ongoing problem long before COVID-19. From former reports conducted by The Globe, enrollment at Point Park had seen a nearly 12% decrease as of the Fall 2020 Semester. The trend of declining undergraduate enrollment has also been occurring at higher education institutions across the country at varying levels. This decline, which has been compounded by the global pandemic, has left university administrations questioning how to get more students in classrooms—and keep them there.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a measurable impact on universities. In 2021, the declining enrollment within undergraduate institutions and community colleges nationally has resulted in a 3.2% decrease in new and returning students to campuses for the fall semester. This differs from the 3.4% drop at the start of the pandemic in 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“When the pandemic hit, clearly, you had students who took the gap year,” DarleneMarnich, Founding Dean and professor for the School of Education said. “They didn’t want to start their college career during a pandemic when living in dorms wasn’t going to be the same, eating in cafeterias and student activities were not going to be the same. A huge number either took a gap year or chose to go to a community college or other place where they could get their general education classes online, being less expensive.”

Currently within the United States, private four-year institutions have suffered the most significant drop in enrollment from 2019 to 2021. National Student Clearinghouse reported that freshman enrollment since 2019 in private for-profit institutions had dropped a total of 22.3%, with public two-year institutions dropping 20.8%. Freshman enrollment only grew at selective private nonprofit institutions, increasing by 11.7%.

These national decreases are considered to be the largest drops in enrollment in over 50 years. Pennsylvania specifically has faced troubling numbers, reaching their lowest point in over two decades according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

“We are not back up to pre-pandemic enrollments, but we have seen an increase this semester and are slowly creeping back up to pre-pandemic numbers now,” Trudy Williams, Vice President of Enrollment, said.

Williams said that the enrollment of new students at Point Park has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, although this semester has presented slight increases towards the enrollment of new and incoming students to campus.

“For the Fall 2021 Semester, we had about 20,000 inquiries that resulted in about 6,500 applications,” Williams said. “From that, we had 5,200 admits and about 837 total deposits. That resulted in about 755 incoming freshmen for this year.”

Although Point Park this year has seen increases in new and incoming student enrollment, COVID-19 is still a major factor in lower levels of enrollment within the university.

In contrast to this semester, the Point Park website presented that the number of applicants who applied to Park Park from 2019-2020 declined significantly, resulting in a 17.49% decline of new enrollees which was a decrease of110 students from the previous year.

“When you’re talking about the enrollment coming back, there is about a three year drag now. You don’t necessarily get that back right away, so that’s part of the reason why the enrollment wouldn’t be fully back right away,” Lou Corsaro, Managing Director for Marketing and Public Relations, said. “But what we’re talking about here is the full-time freshman class coming back. We need that number to get back and stay there. We can build enrollment in those other years, but there’s more of a drag once you have one freshman class that’s down in Fall of ‘20, that stays with you for the next four years.”

The pandemic has also impacted the institution’s enrollment of both international and transfer students because of changes economically and the decreases within community college enrollment.

“In Fall of ‘20, our transfer and international student enrollment both dropped,” Williams said. “Our international students for this semester are starting to creep back up; however, most of our international students are either being recruited as athletes or they are conservatory students. There isn’t any active recruiting going on for international students right now. As far as transfer students, the numbers have been going down over the past couple of years, [and] there are less students in community colleges right now and that is where we get a lot of students. Since there are less students in community colleges, therefore, we are getting less transfer students.”

The drop in undergraduate enrollment is slightly offset though by the increase in graduate enrollment at Point Park. From 2019 to 2020, there were 45 more graduate students enrolled in programs. While the in-person programs saw a bit of a decrease, online graduate programs saw a nearly 45% increase.

“The School of Education and Point Park in general have gotten more people with master’s degrees who want to be teachers,” Marnich said. “They graduated from college and are a little older and wiser, leading them to think more about what they want to pursue. At the 17 and 18 year-old level, the pandemic has really taken a hit on the traditional 17 and 18 year-olds wanting to choose teaching as a path.”

The Pennsylvania State System for Higher Education, which oversees 14 state-owned universities and has become the largest provider of higher education within the commonwealth, reported in October 2021 that enrollment in the system saw a 5.4% decline and with an estimated 5,000 less students participating.the system had “lost more than 5,000 students this year in an enrollment drop of 5.4%” within the state, This accounts for the loss of $36 million for undergraduate and community institutions.

The state system’s troubling drop reflects a 16% national decline in enrollment of new and incoming students dating back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the New York Times. Nearly a quarter of this drop was seen within community colleges across the state and nation in 2020, continuing to decline in 2021.

With fluctuations of enrollment still occurring, institutions and students have become concerned with the possible impacts that decreased enrollment could have on education and workforce increase, considering the work force has continued to have trouble finding potential hires.

According to Forbes, the “COVID-19 Recession” has not dramatically risen to experts’ expectations, considering that, economically, full recovery has not come for those who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic.

High rates of labor shortages and voluntary resignations among workers with limited or no college education has become a significant factor in decreased enrollment according to Forbes, since high market wages and unemployment benefits have made it easier for those to leave their places of work without needing to find a necessary replacement.

Although this may be the case, those who have already earned or are planning on obtaining a bachelor’s degree may experience difficulties applying for jobs, considering increased rates in graduate programs may cause employers to change their credentials from bachelor’s to master’s expertise.

“Even though the undergraduate enrollment in the School of Education has taken a dip, our master’s and doctoral numbers are incredibly high,” Marnich said. “We just recruited 210 new master’s students in the fall, and we are recruiting the next group to come in. In the spring, we recruited 57 doctoral candidates for the fall of this year in the School of Education. So, our undergraduate has taken a hit with the traditional 18-year-olds coming in, and I do think we may catch up after that second year at community colleges and transferring. Our master’s and doctorate exploded. So that has been very good for both the school of education and Point Park in general.”

Despite the impacts and constant changes through the pandemic, there is hope that once the pandemic begins to subside institutions will start to see an increase in student enrollment and will return to numbers comparable to before COVID-19.

“I think that it’s going to take a couple of years for us to get back up to those pre-pandemic levels,” Williams said. “I think we are doing a lot of the right things, we are reaching out, and the one thing I would say is that the silver lining within the pandemic would be that it forced us to think outside of the box in terms of technology since we were always doing everything in-person. It made us adapt to change.”