Penn State

At Penn State, decline in undergraduate applications due to demographics, economy

Penn State has seen 5,000 fewer applications for admission the next school year, and university officials are attributing the 9 percent drop-off to a declining high school-age population and concerns over tuition costs.

As of Monday, Penn State received 53,872 applications from prospective students who want to be part of the university’s freshman class in the 2013-2014 academic year. Last year at this time, that number was higher, at 59,353.

The latest update does not come as a surprise to officials, who have reported in previous months application numbers that lagged those of the previous year. Officials have said the issues responsible for the decline have been on their radar for some time.

“Affordability and cost are on the minds of families in determining where to go to college,” said Anne Rohrbach, the executive director of the undergraduate admissions office. “The impact is greatest in the Northeast, where the number of high school seniors is declining. There are fewer high school graduates in Pennsylvania and a leveling of the rate of college-bound students, trends that have been long been predicted.”

Penn State President Rodney Erickson told the university’s trustees in March that undergraduate applications were down 9 percent, and in previous reports about admissions numbers, he has said he expects the quality of the incoming freshman class to be the same as in years past.

The 2013-2014 application numbers are off pace significantly from 2011-2012, when the university saw a record of 78,873 people applying for admission.

The university is not saying the ugly child abuse scandal centered on former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has turned off high-schoolers to Penn State.

“Penn State is in the same situation as every other institution in Pennsylvania at this time,” said Lisa Powers, a university spokeswoman. We all face a declining demographic combined with a really tight economy and concerns about costs, as well as a lot of questions being asked nationally about the value of a degree and significant declines in state funding.

“Most students and their parents just want to make sure that they receive a quality education and that, in the end, they will be able to obtain a good job.”

Pennsylvania’s population of high school students has been in decline, but what had offset that in the past was an increasing number of students who went to college. But the rate of college-bound students has leveled off, Powers said.

The majority of the applicants continue to come from outside Pennsylvania. Of the 53,872 applicants, 23,582 were from the state. That’s down from 25,101 last year.

However, Pennsylvanians comprise the 54.3 percent of those who have been accepted. Powers said the numbers of those accepted change rapidly.

Despite the drop in applications, Penn State still leads some of its Big Ten peers.

As of April 10, Ohio State had 35,400 applications, according to its student-run newspaper. At the University of Minnesota, applications numbered 42,000, its student newspaper reported April 9.

At Penn State, officials are hoping to allay fears about the rising cost of tuition by rolling out some new scholarship programs.

Some 2,700 incoming freshman will get between $4,000 and $6,000 in scholarships, which adds up to $20 million that will be allocated over two years.

Penn State’s tuition, currently ranging from $15,562 to $20,090 depending on a student’s year and major, is at or near the top of the most expensive public universities in the country. When last year’s graduates got their diplomas, they left the university with an average of $35,000 in student loan debt, according to financial aid director Anna Griswold.