Data show that college enrollment in the United States has decreased for the better part of the past decade.

Not surprisingly, that impact is also being felt locally, as St. Francis University, Mount Aloysius College and Pitt-Johnstown have seen their enrollment numbers decline during the past few years. And, according to a recent report by Inquirer.com in Philadelphia, enrollment at the 14 state-owned schools, which includes Indiana University of Pennsylvania, dropped 20% from 2010 to 2019.

The drop can be blamed on rising tuition, long-term debt obligations and a decrease in high school graduates due to lower birth rates. Tuition costs in Pennsylvania are among the most expensive in the nation.

“When those young people graduate with a credential that gives them a very good professional job, they’re saddled with large debt that defers their contribution to the economy by buying stuff, by buying houses, cars,” Mount Aloysius College President John Mills told our Dave Sutor. 

“We think it’s not just a mission-critical thing to reduce the burden of loans, but we feel it helps the whole Pennsylvania state economy by trying to cut down on that burden that students will face when they enter the professional workforce.”

To combat the problem, many colleges are offering more educational opportunities to students. At St. Francis, new online graduate programs have helped to stem the loss, and Pitt-Johnstown has added a dozen new majors over the past several years.

The factors contributing to the enrollment decline have made trade schools and community colleges more attractive routes for some recent high school graduates. 

Penn Highlands Community College, with six locations throughout the region, offers degrees and the opportunity for students to earn credits at a fraction of the cost before transferring to a four-year institution. 

The school’s projected enrollment for this semester is 1,725, compared with 1,586 in spring 2010 and 1,690 in spring 2015.

Greater Johnstown Career & Technology Center in Richland Township offers adult education programs in which students receive specialized training in many vocational and technical areas, such as welding, cosmetology and heating and air conditioning technology. 

Its Career in a Year program allows adults to complete their education in six to 12 months.

“I think the career centers offer a very specific education in a more timely manner,” said John Augustine, the tech center’s administrative director. He said the school’s adult enrollment is the strongest it’s been in the past 10 years.

“We’re seeing a younger population of enrollment,” he said. “If you were to ask me 10 years ago, I’d say our average enrollment was around 35 years old. Now it’s probably around 25 years old. The younger population is seeking out skilled trade education.”

Regardless of what path high school graduates take, we encourage them to do their homework to find the best options to get the most out of their learning investments. 

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