For years, many Pennsylvania colleges have been sounding the alarm about their future.
Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, commonly known as Passhe, recently consolidated six of its campuses into two after more than a decade of flagging enrollment and financial pressures. Pennsylvania State University ran a deficit of more than $150 million last academic year. And Muhlenberg College saw its credit downgraded last year amid analysts’ concerns about “highly competitive student market conditions and weak regional demographics” squeezing the institution’s revenue.
While some factors — like declining enrollment, anemic state investment, and a dwindling pipeline of high-school graduates — affecting institutions in the Keystone state are also common elsewhere, there’s also a distinctly Pennsylvanian force at play: The state has a large number of colleges relative to its traditional-age student population.
A Chronicle analysis of the higher-ed landscape in Pennsylvania reveals that 149 four-year public, four-year private, and two-year institutions served undergraduates in 2020. That’s 7,570 18- to 24-year-old Pennsylvanians for every college.
In comparison, the two states that share Pennsylvania’s borders are less crowded. Ohio had 8,882 18- to 24-year-olds for each of the state’s 120 colleges in 2020. New York had 7,655 people of traditional college age for each of its 228 colleges.
“We’re in a state with a very large private sector of higher education, so the competition for students is fierce, with a declining number of Pennsylvanians,” said Joni Finney, former director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
More than 60 percent of the institutions in The Chronicle’s analysis are four-year private nonprofit colleges. Of this group, more than 72 percent derive at least half of their freshman class from within the state. About three institutions in 10, in The Chronicle’s sample, are four-year public colleges. The rest are community colleges. (For-profit, two-year private, and graduate-student-only colleges were excluded from the analysis).
Two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s counties are home to at least one college. The top three counties by number of colleges are among the state’s most populous. Philadelphia County has 16 institutions; Montgomery County, adjacent to Philadelphia, has 12; and Allegheny County, dominated by Pittsburgh, has 11.
For more on Pennsylvania’s crowded landscape of colleges, see below:
Lee Gardner contributed to this report.