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Cheyney University campus.jpg

Students walk on the campus of Cheyney University. (Emily Cohen for WHYY, file)

Steady enrollment decline at colleges across the country isn’t a secret, but it’s about to get worse — particularly in Pennsylvania.

Experts forecast another 16 percent drop in the number of students starting college.

Although the economy has recovered from the worst effects of the Great Recession in 2008, the birth rate hasn’t — and that decline is expected to catch up with schools in 2026.

Previously, schools could count on having a greater number of high school graduates every year, said Nathan Grawe, a labor economist and expert in demographic trends.

“In the past, if they didn’t make a class, they could always say, ‘Yeah, but next year there’ll be more high school students than last year, and so we can rebound,'” he said when he presented the data to state lawmakers in Harrisburg this month.

“But when you are in a period of plateau — or in many of these institutions of the Northeast where we’re already in the declining period — you can’t look forward to ‘and next year will be a little bit easier.’ Instead, you think, ‘Well, next year is going to be a little tougher, and the year after that a little tougher still.'”

Pennsylvania is in an especially dire situation because its population was in a downward slide, while the national birth rate was increasing, noted Grawe, who wrote the book “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.”

Enrollment has been falling at many Pennsylvania colleges and universities for nearly decade, since peak enrollment numbers in 2010.

While Penn State’s main campus enrollment is steady, its 19 satellite campuses have seen dips.

The state-owned universities saw a 4% enrollment decline last year and a 20% enrollment drop since 2010. The eight consecutive years of enrollment losses mean the system now has fewer than 100,000 students enrolled at its 14 universities for the first time since 2001.

Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the state system, said the system implemented a strategic redesign two years ago to address enrollment losses, among other issues.

The vast majority of students at state-owned university have been Pennsylvania residents between 18 and 25 who enrolled right out of high school.

“Those are the numbers that are declining. That’s the reality, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” Marshall said. “But you can look to attract different types of student, look to do more to retain those students who do enroll.”

The redesign is meant to help expand offerings and outreach to adult learners and underrepresented groups.

Pennsylvania is projected to be the sixth-highest annual producer of high school graduates in the nation between the 2011-12 and 2031-32 school years. That 20-year projection would mean Pennsylvania averages nearly one-quarter of the Northeast region’s high school graduates each year.

While those projections would put Pennsylvania in the top ten states for their annual high school graduation rate, it will still be a decline from the Commonwealth’s previous rate. The annual number of high school graduates in Pennsylvania peaked in 2011-12 with 150,000 students. The state’s annual high school graduation rate is not expected to reach that level again and is anticipated instead to be only 132,000 students in 2031-32.

“In about seven or eight years, we’re going to go off another pretty substantial cliff and see those numbers drop even more significantly,” Marshall said.

As part of its overhaul, the state system board of governors voted earlier this month to end its uniform tuition fee and allow the 14 universities to set their own tuition rates starting next year to better compete in their regions.

Grawe, a professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, said universities will have to reconsider their mission and who they serve.

“You need to answer that question of ‘Who are we?’ and make sure that everybody on campus is directed toward our student group.”

Factors that increase college populations are growing, Grawe said, such as an increase in the number of parents who have college degrees and a growing Asian-American population known for a high rate of college attendance.

But he points out the declining population in Pennsylvania overwhelms other considerations, and those rising populations aren’t enough to offset the declining population in the Keystone State where a 15% enrollment drop is forecast.

Elite universities, those in the Top 50 college rankings, will see gains in the next few years, but those schools will eventually see a drop as well, according to Grawe’s data. Meanwhile, community colleges and regional four-year universities serve the vast majority of college students in the United States.

“When you look at two-year institutions and regional four-year institutions, they really do track the [state’s] population as a whole. So when the numbers in the population fall, these two groups [fall too,]” he said.

The commonwealth’s community colleges and regional four-year campuses have already cut their budgets to deal with the shrinking pool of high school graduates. But Grawe said that’s not a solution.

“I’ve heard a couple college presidents note [they’re] not going to cut [their] way out of this problem,” he said. “They elaborate that if you start cutting your way out of the problem … your enrollments dip further, and so you cut further. And it just leads to sort of a death spiral.”

He said institutions have a few years to work out a creative response to the looming downturn.

“There might be good reasons for why you got where you got, but eventually you have to step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, are we serving our customers?'”

Grawe testified at a state Senate Majority Policy Committee hearing earlier this month.

“I don’t want to call it a tidal wave. I don’t want to get to overdramatic here, but it’s nasty and it’s coming and it’s inevitable,” said state Sen. Dave Argall, committee chairman.

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.