At Carlow University, administrators, faculty and staff no longer get raises at the start of the fiscal year. The university waits until enrollment numbers are finalized for the academic year, and if enough students showed up, doles them out. 

“Our raises come because the students are successful,” President Kathy Humphrey said in an interview. “Everybody waits with bated breath – ‘Did we make our number?’ When you’ve got everybody pulling in that direction, it makes a dramatic difference.” 

The university added this incentive after Humphrey took over more than two years ago. Since then, Carlow appears to have stemmed its declining enrollment. The university saw a meaningful increase from fall 2021 to fall 2023, according to officials. But for years, employees at Carlow likely wouldn’t have earned raises under this model – and if other small, private universities in Allegheny County took the same approach, theirs wouldn’t have, either.

The majority of these institutions have seen significant enrollment declines in roughly the last decade, and they depend on tuition revenue to balance their budget. 

Between fall 2011 and fall 2021, enrollment fell by about 17% at Carlow, 16% at Duquesne University and 9% at Point Park University, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education. But Carlow and Point Park, using internal numbers, calculate declines of about 15% and 11%, respectively.

Robert Morris University, in Moon Township, saw about a 24% drop during this time. La Roche University, in McCandless, saw about a 12% decline. 

Chatham University bucked the trend over that decade, increasing enrollment by about 7% — driven in part by admitting undergraduate men for the first time. But the university faces a multimillion-dollar budget deficit that one official told faculty was partly attributable to a yearslong drop in graduate student enrollment. 

PublicSource included only students seeking degrees or certificates in its analysis. The federal government has not yet made this data available for fall 2022 and 2023. La Roche and Point Park provided data that shows a continued decline during those semesters, while data from Carlow shows that enrollment this fall almost matched that of fall 2011. Chatham, Duquesne and Robert Morris did not provide this data for recent semesters.

While enrollment at smaller universities like these across the U.S. largely held steady over the last decade, the Pittsburgh universities aren’t the only private institutions grappling with shrinking student bodies.

Persistent declines could bring cuts to academic programslayoffs or, in rare cases, closures, as the fates of other universities in the country show. The local declines could soon worsen as a reduction in births during and after the Great Recession of 2008 is projected to play out more acutely in Pennsylvania, setting up a steep drop in the traditional college-going population by the end of the decade. Rain falls on Duquesne University’s Uptown campus on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. Beyond the pedestrian bridge is Pittsburgh’s downtown skyline. (Video by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

On top of that, the universities must contend with an American public that’s losing confidence in the value of a degree. And they must also face a disproportionate number of competitors – Pennsylvania has one of the highest ratios of higher education institutions to students in the country, according to Inside Higher Ed. 

Against this backdrop, small, private universities in Pittsburgh are facing “an uphill battle” in attracting students, said Robert Kelchen, head of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“They have to really get a niche and protect it,” Kelchen said. “They have to look carefully at who they are, who they want to be, and look at every dollar that they’re spending. Because the competition is fierce, and it’s likely not getting any easier.”

What’s causing the declines?

From 2012 to 2029, the population of 18-year-olds in the U.S. is projected to decline by about 10%, according to an analysis from economics professor Nathan Grawe. The drop is far more severe in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, where the population in both cases is projected to fall by nearly 20%. 

The demographic decline in Pennsylvania is likely one factor driving the enrollment woes at small, private universities, but their limited national or global reputation could be another, said Barrett Taylor, a professor at the University of North Texas who specializes in higher education policy, governance and finance.  

For example, while out-of-state and international students made up about 90% of degree-seeking students at high-profile Carnegie Mellon University in fall 2022, they accounted for just 30% at Chatham.

Chris Brussalis, president of Point Park University, walks into a university building, his back turned.
Chris Brussalis, president of Point Park University, officially took over in July. (Photo by Amaya Lobato-Rivas/PublicSource)

Some local schools are shifting their recruitment focus accordingly.

Marlin Collingwood, vice president of enrollment at Point Park, arrived at the university in April. At the time, he found that the university had focused on recruiting high school graduates who lived, at most, about three hours from Pittsburgh. Now, the university’s marketing efforts extend to Columbus, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; Philadelphia and Maryland. 

Collingwood believes that students are more likely to enroll if they’ve toured campus. To that end, the university is providing eligible high school juniors and seniors with $4,000 scholarships if they visit campus by mid-February and enroll.

“There are 18-year-olds living in small towns in Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and West Virginia, New York, whose only goal in life when they graduate is to go to a city,” Collingwood said. “We are an urban experience that Mom and Dad will probably say, ‘OK, I can live with that. I can’t live with you going to New York, or Chicago, or Philly. But Pittsburgh is doable.’”

Growing skepticism in the value of higher education may also be playing a part in lower enrollment trends, according to researchers, who also point to weaknesses in enrolling older undergraduates and universities’ potentially limited resources for serving diverse students, such as veterans. 

Enrolling more “nontraditional” students – including older adults – could reduce or offset declines. In Allegheny County alone, around half of residents ages 25 and older lack a college degree.

Nontraditional students are important to Carlow, which has prepared for the “enrollment cliff” by serving students who may otherwise find college inaccessible, said President Humphrey. The university recently launched a certificate program for practical nurses; the current cohort includes older adults and single mothers, she said. 

Carlow University’s campus in Oakland. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource).
Carlow University President Kathy Humphrey speaks during at interview at the school on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Kathy Humphrey, president of Carlow, speaks to PublicSource during an interview in October 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“We have always sought to provide opportunities to students who ordinarily wouldn’t get the opportunity,” Humphrey said. “When you do that work, what happens is the cliff doesn’t scare you. Because, in actuality, we’re grabbing those individuals that others are not looking at.”

“I’m a little concerned about you telling my story because they might start taking my people, right,” Humphrey said, laughing.

Point Park wants to boost its enrollment of nontraditional students, but Collingwood said the university’s main competitor is not other local institutions – it’s the option of entering the workforce and foregoing college. Point Park is tackling this, officials said, by promoting its focus on career readiness to prospective students.

“I don’t think that the university really did its best to promote itself and promote its value to the community. We’ve kind of been our own best-kept secret,” said President Chris Brussalis, who officially took over in July following the abrupt departure of his predecessor in January.

“Our differentiator here is really all about experiential learning,” Brussalis said. “We really want and desire for all of our freshmen to have job-shadowing experiences and internships right out of the gate.”

The pitfalls of tuition dependence

The price of attendance, coupled with the competition for students in Pennsylvania, could be contributing to the loss of students at local institutions. 

The state’s many public universities largely offer local families a lower price. After receiving financial aid, the average in-state family paid roughly $16,000 more to attend Duquesne than the public Slippery Rock University during the 2021-22 academic year; about $10,450 more to attend Chatham and nearly $7,000 more to attend Point Park.

Carlow was an outlier that academic year, as the average student paid the lowest price of the local small, private universities and most state publics. The university provided financial aid to the vast majority of traditional students last academic year, according to institutional data. 

Tuition and fees, however, are crucial to the bottom lines of most private universities. They accounted for about 80% of revenue at Chatham in the fiscal year ending June 2022 and about 60% at Carlow, according to their Form 990s filed with the IRS. The most selective private colleges, with much larger endowments, work differently. At Carnegie Mellon, for instance, tuition was about 45% of total revenue.

The financial situations at the local privates are varied. Carlow, Point Park and Chatham reported deficits at the end of their fiscal years ending in 2022, while Duquesne, La Roche and Robert Morris reported surpluses. 

Persistent enrollment declines, though, likely will not bode well. While schools with strong endowments may be able to fill some gaps in revenue, it’s not a permanent solution to fewer students showing up, said Walter Brown, a professor at Jackson State University who specializes in higher education finance. 

He said that institutions with shrinking enrollments may need to streamline their operating costs – which could include reducing their number of adjunct faculty or delaying the rollout of planned academic programs – or consider merging with other universities. 

Chris Brussalis, Point Park University president, stands for a portrait.
Chris Brussalis, president of Point Park University, expects that the institution’s new strategic plan will increase revenue. (Photo by Amaya Lobato-Rivas/PublicSource)

Chatham has already cut faculty compensation, among other austerity measures, to reduce its budget deficit. And this fall, WESA reported that Point Park, Chatham, Carlow and Robert Morris, as well as Washington & Jefferson College, were considering combining and outsourcing their back office work. Some said after the story ran that they were backing away from the proposed agreement.

“You have to look at it as if it is a small business, and you have to be competitive in what you do. … You have to think strategically,” Brown said. “That’s not something that you do when you’re having serious problems, or when you’re almost closing. That has to be thought of when times are good.”

Brussalis, the Point Park president, said that the university’s finances are well-managed, despite the deficit. He expects that the institution’s new strategic plan, which charts Point Park’s future through 2030, will increase revenue. The university wants to grow enrollment by 30% and launch a capital campaign, among the plan’s plethora of goals.

The plan also states that, upon annual review, Point Park will phase out programs “that are no longer relevant.” Brussalis has denied that this will imminently lead to faculty layoffs. “I’ve always been a believer, throughout my entire career, that it is difficult to impossible to cut your way to prosperity,” he said.

What might the future hold?

Some researchers are unsure whether small, private universities will weather the storm they face. These universities can be, “depending on who you talk to, either really stubborn or really resilient,” said Kelchen, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“Even among those that all the numbers say they should close, most of them, somehow, some way, make it through,” he said. “But it’s a challenging environment. And then it’s a question of, ‘What type of education can they offer students when their main goal is just surviving financially?’”

Duquesne University saw enrollment fall by about 16% from fall 2011 to 2021. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Since 2016, 91 private universities in the U.S. have announced closures, mergers or plans to do either, according to CNBC. That’s a small number, given that there were nearly 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the country during the 2020-21 academic year. 

Still, Ozan Jaquette, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is pessimistic. While some small, private institutions may survive by finding a niche in the market, he expects most to close within the next decade. “The economics are just very much against these institutions,” said Jaquette, whose research has focused on higher education enrollment management.

Local universities point to some bright spots, however. Gabriel Welsch, a spokesperson for Duquesne, said in a statement that this fall’s incoming freshman class was 24% larger than that of fall 2020. He attributed the growth partly to the creation of new academic programs and the planned 2024 opening of the College of Osteopathic Medicine

Even with that growth, though, institutional data from Duquesne shows that total enrollment decreased by about 8% between fall 2020 and fall 2023. 

Carlow University President Kathy Humphrey speaks with PublicSource at the university in October 2022, in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Humphrey, at Carlow, is confident her university will survive. She partly attributed Carlow’s recent growth to the university aligning its academic offerings with community needs and partnering with local institutions, such as UPMC, to inform that work.

“We’re trying to meet the next great need. That’s what’s driving our enrollment in the right direction. And that’s why I can say to you, ‘We’re not concerned about the cliff.’ We’re going to make it over the cliff with no problem because we’re going to be intensely who we are.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.