Lock Haven University, situated on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, has been steadily losing enrollment for almost a decade.
Since 2010, enrollment has declined from 5,451 to 3,425.
“As I began to assess our way forward ... we’ve experienced ... the effects of demographic and populations shifts,” said LHU President Robert Pignatello, who assumed office in July. “Fewer colleged-aged students coming out of the high schools. So we’re not alone, and we’ve experienced a fall in enrollment over the last eight years. ... And that of course has affected our ability to serve our current students and affected our financial stability as well.”
But instead of cutting programs and raising tuition for in-state students, Pignatello said he is hoping to attract students by expanding existing programs, adding new initiatives and providing more financial assistance.
“Our goal for next fall is to stabilize enrollment,” he said.
It could mean more Centre County students — 339 fall semester students are Centre County residents, and about 2,000 LHU alumni reside in the county.
Expanding existing programs
One of the first steps, Pignatello said, is to expand existing degree programs, like the nursing and physician assistant programs.
“We think that health care and health care services are an opportunity for growth,” he said.
LHU is working with UPMC Susquehanna and Geisinger to bring the nursing program, which is currently offered at the school’s Clearfield campus, to the main campus in Lock Haven by fall 2019. The success of an inaugural Lock Haven campus nursing class depends on finding local partners to provide hands-on training and simulations, Pignatello said.
The university will also “aggressively” market its associate degree programs, for students not interested in a four-year degree. LHU plans to tap into the market needed for skilled trades, advanced manufacturing, construction and operations management.
“We think we provide better affordability and better value,” Pignatello said. “We just want to capture a greater portion of the existing market.”
LHU will also become the first school in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to offer a pet-friendly residence hall.
The idea came from North Hall Residence Hall Director Emmy Borst, who researched the benefits students would get from having their pets on campus.
“Students who are comfortable where they live have greater success and pets are a great source of comfort to many students,” she said in a press release. “Studies show that students who feel at home on campus are the students that thrive both socially and academically.”
Pignatello said the initiative is “just another way to demonstrate that we want to improve the student experience.”
LHU will introduce the pet-friendly dorm this spring, allowing dogs under 40 pounds, cats, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and fish.
“The mobility rate that we have in terms of transforming students from the lower 60 percent of family income to the upper 40 percent is at a very high level in the (state) system — 25 percent — so it really speaks to the transformational power of higher education,” Pignatello said.
Because LHU serves a mostly low-income student population — 63 percent of students are either receiving Pell Grants or state aid — Pignatello said he wants to focus on making the school even more affordable.
According to a press release, the LHU Council of Trustees recently approved new need-based scholarship aid to help students in lower income brackets.
In addition to other scholarships, loans and need-based aid, students with a family income below $30,000 will receive an average of $700 per year; those with family incomes between $30,001 and $48,000 will receive an average of $500 per year; and those with family incomes between $48,001 and $75,000 will receive an average of $300 per year.
“We want to be the low-cost alternative in the region for families who are struggling to pay for high tuition costs and fees,” said Pignatello.
‘We are not reducing budgets’
“We are not reducing budgets, we are not eliminating programs because we felt the effects of this,” he said. “It’s time to hit the pause button and to focus on how we can grow additional revenue so we don’t have to make any more cuts.”
With the changes he hopes to make to the health care and science programs at LHU, Pignatello said, “I think some of the programs are going to require an investment of personnel.”
That could mean additional jobs on campus, from teaching positions to construction work. But those changes will probably happen in the next 2-3 years, instead of the next couple of months, he said.