Last month, Moody's Investor's Service listed its 2013 outlook for all higher education as negative, saying the sector “has hit a critical juncture in the evolution of its business model.”
The report cited several familiar factors — increased student price sensitivity, stagnant or declining state support, weak investment returns. And then there was this: "The dip in the number of domestic high school graduates since the peak of 3.34 million for school year 2007-2008."
That demographic change hasn't gotten much press, but within higher education it is not just known but a key issue in strategic planning. Local college and university administrators said they have felt its impact already, and they are working hard to handle it effectively.
"Even to maintain our current enrollment means we need to enlarge our market share," said John Chopka, vice president of enrollment management at Messiah College. "The families that we're used to dealing with, those students are going to be fewer and farther between."
So far, Messiah has been able to keep its undergraduate enrollment pretty stable, hovering about 2,800 since 2008. But, Chopka said, that has not been without some adjustment of discount rates and academic profile, and the college is now planning for a slightly lower enrollment for the next decade.
The change isn't just in numbers. The pool of U.S. high school graduates also is becoming more racially diverse, and the more-competitive environment is increasing the incentives for colleges to woo out-of-state and international students.
Messiah is investing in its intercultural office and its academic support services, Chopka said, adding majors such as civil engineering and Chinese studies, seeking operational efficiencies and rejoicing that the master's degree programs it introduced several years ago — some primarily online — have proved popular.
Harrisburg Area Community College already has seen enrollment drop, and last week Standard and Poor's Rating Services cited the decline among its reasons for downgrading HACC's bond rating to A-.
Rob Steinmetz, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at HACC, said the college recently reorganized both its integrated marketing and recruitment teams in response and is poised "to greatly enhance our efforts."
Steinmetz said that HACC has greater diversity in age than four-year universities tend to and that while it will continue to maximize its recruitment of the high school population, it will also focus on expanding its offerings and recruitment efforts "in ways that appeal to adult students, including more online study."
HACC is also adjusting its new student orientation by "creating new student success courses, enhancing and expanding an early alert system that will let us know if a student may need help with coursework and exploring new and innovative ways for students to complete developmental education," Steinmetz said.
At Shippensburg University, Barbara Lyman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said the focus is on compellingly presenting the school's advantages.
"We must more effectively make known our story, the story of our high-quality faculty and programs, and the undeniable competitiveness and successes of our students," Lyman said.
SU is emphasizing that its program enables faculty to know students and write effective letters of recommendation; that its joint faculty-undergraduate student research program has more than tripled since 2009; and that it has added programs such as computer engineering and software engineering.
Lyman said SU also has developed a plan offering tuition at 175 percent of the in-state rate, instead of the standard 250 percent, to talented out-of-state students who meet certain SAT or class rank criteria or maintain eligibility in a STEM or STEM education major.
Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education that includes SU and 13 other universities, said program adjustment has been a big part of the adaptation effort.
Across the PASSHE system in the past five years, programs like geography, humanities studies, apparel and textiles have been discontinued, consolidated or put on hold, while about two dozen new programs such as a master's in computer science have been introduced after consultation with employers.
In many cases, Marshall said, technology allows the universities to work together. For instance, an Arabic language and culture program that "the CIA and defense department has identified as very much needed" is being offered by California University via distance education to students in any PASSHE university.
So far, Marshall said, PASSHE is staying ahead of the demographic curve: The number of Pennsylvania high school graduates last year dropped about 6 percent, and PASSHE's overall enrollment dropped only 1 to 2 percent.
At Lebanon Valley College, Bill Brown, vice president for enrollment, said the number of students nearly doubled in recent years, from about 800 to roughly 1,600 now. Despite the demographic downturn, LVC's strategic goal calls for increasing enrollment to 1,700.
Like SU, LVC is emphasizing the quality of education and experience it offers, Brown said. It is also touting its study-abroad program and thinking about recruiting from China, India and Brazil.
"We're going a bit slowly," Brown said of the latter prospect. "That involves a lot of things."