With a little more than two months at the president’s desk, Laurie Carter is setting her sights on Shippensburg University’s major problem — a declining enrollment rate — but this is not going to be an easy beast to take down.
SU’s problem is not unique. It is a problem throughout the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and at other universities and colleges. Schools are getting fewer students, meaning there is less funding via tuition to support academic programs and institutional services.
The problem primarily stems from a decline in the number of people graduating from high school. It is important to be careful with this fact though. Nationally, the average graduation rate is hitting an all-time high in recent years, according to National Public Radio. Pennsylvania comes in about the same as the national average, which is at 83 percent for the 2014-15 academic year, according to the most recent data from The National Center for Education Statistics.
The issue lies with a declining number of high school students. From 2006 to 2016, the number of students enrolled in Pennsylvania high schools plummeted from 126,926 to 116,123 students, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
With more than 10,000 fewer people who potentially could have been university students, it is not hard to figure out why SU’s enrollment has fell. A harder question to answer is, why has SU’s enrollment fallen so dramatically in a matter of a few years?
During the fall 2013 semester, 7,548 undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled at SU, according to SU’s Enrollment and Compliance Report, which is made available on ship.edu. Enrollment for the current semester crashed to 6,581 students.
At its current rate, enrollment would drop to less than 6,000 students by the end of the decade, and the financial repercussions would be felt from Old Main offices to every classroom. In words everyone can understand, this ship may be sinking in the near future.
Impending doom aside, there is still time to take action — but not much time. Carter has recognized this issue and is looking to tackle it head on, according to the letter she sent out to the campus community last week and to The Slate’s interview with the president.
Carter’s strategy is twofold and includes reorganizing administrative structures in Old Main and opening up avenues of conversation with students. In a nutshell, talking with SU students will help Carter and her team know the positives and negatives of SU. That information can be used to keep the good aspects of the university while trying to improve the less appealing characteristics.
But talking to SU students will not be enough to find out why some students choose SU and others do not. It is critical to talk to the people who reject SU — the people who were interested in SU, visited its campus, spoke to its faculty and administrators and then chose a different university.
Whatever their reasons were to not attend SU is exactly where the administration needs to focus its attention to get enrollment numbers back up.