JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Students spend time throughout high school working with teachers, counselors and administrators, weighing their future options – college, trade school, military, workforce.

Nick Milanesi, a Patton resident and Cambria Heights High School graduate, originally went the community college route before then going to a four-year school.

After starting at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College he transferred to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

“Coming out of high school, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I went to Penn Highlands,” Milanesi, a marketing major, said. “It gave me an opportunity to try different things. After two years there, I actually took some time off. I went to work. I realized I'd like to go back to school.”

College officials say fewer high school graduates are applying to four-year schools. Tuition costs continue to rise. And more and more students are attending trade classes or two-year schools – such as Penn Highlands, which has seen an increase in enrollment over the last decade.

St. Francis University, Mount Aloysius College and Pitt-Johnstown, like many postsecondary educational institutions across Pennsylvania and the nation, have seen downturns in enrollment during the past few years.

“It's been a very big challenge,” Mount Aloysius College President John Mills said. “The high school numbers in the Northeast – and Pennsylvania is one of the leaders in this bad category of declining high school graduates – (means) there are fewer and fewer students out there for all the schools to recruit”

Enrollment at the 14 state-owned schools dropped 20 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to a recent report done by Inquirer.com in Philadelphia. Cheyney (-61.0%), Mansfield (-50.7%), Edinboro (-46.2%) and Lock Haven (-42.0%) had the biggest declines.

There is expected to be a “demographic cliff” with a decrease of high school graduates starting around 2026, as a result of lower birth rates during the Great Recession in the late 2000s.

In the past decade or so, UPJ has added more than a dozen new majors, including transitioning its engineering technology degree to a full engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh, adding a chemical engineering degree, and now offering management, marketing, accounting and information systems as full majors.

“Students are very savvy, and their parents are savvy when it comes to affording college,” Therese Grimes, UPJ's associate vice president of enrollment, said.

In comparison to traditional college, which can take four or five years for students to complete, trade schools and community colleges offer opportunities to get an education and find employment in shorter times and at much less of an expense.

Penn Highlands, which offers both degrees and a path for students to earn credits before moving onto four-year school, projected an enrollment of 1,725 for the spring of 2020. That has increased from 1,586 in spring 2010 and 1,690 in spring 2015.

“We're offering students an opportunity to earn a degree here that will put them right into the workforce or do the first two years of a bachelor's degree here at a much deceased cost than what it would be at other institutions,” Trish Corle, Penn Highlands Community College's vice president of student services, said.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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