Barron discusses approach to changing student demographics for trustees

November 15, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Changing demographics across Pennsylvania and the nation are bringing new opportunities and challenges to Penn State and other higher education institutions, as they work to attract and educate future generations of students, according to Penn State President Eric Barron.

Barron outlined the University’s proactive approach to address demographic shifts — such as declining fertility rates, decreases in high school populations and graduates, increases in the numbers of students from underrepresented groups, and a rise in students who are the first in their families to attend college — and gave an overview of the University’s enrollment picture in a presentation to the Board of Trustees at its Friday (Nov. 15) meeting. 

“As Penn State, like other universities across the country, prepares for change, our goal will continue to be to welcome and provide an accessible and affordable high-quality education for all of our students,” Barron said. “The University has put in place a series of actions focused on reaching new and larger pools of students in Pennsylvania and beyond, while continuing to provide transformational experiences to help boost student success, retention and graduation.”

According to Barron, Penn State’s overall enrollment remains strong, in part driven by growing enrollments of undergraduate students from underrepresented groups, Pennsylvania resident students, and graduate students, along with steady demand at University Park and Penn State World Campus. The Commonwealth Campuses continue to play an integral role in educating students across the state. Though there has been a modest decline in student headcount, the total decrease in full time enrollment is much less due to a strategic focus on baccalaureate degrees, movement of bachelor of science business and master of business administration students to the World Campus, and a 20% increase in four-year students as a result of investments in new market-driven programs. 

Throughout Pennsylvania, decreasing high school populations are exacerbating a decline in the number of high school graduates who are college bound. In addition, across the country, declining total fertility rates — falling by nearly 20% since the Great Recession in 2008 — also are impacting overall college enrollments. Projections indicate that there will be a sizable decline in prospective college students nationally beginning in 2026. Similar to New Jersey, Pennsylvania is expected to have year-over-year declines in almost every year of the projections — leading to a decline of about 9%, or about 14,000 fewer graduates, by 2031-32

However, as high school student populations shift, incoming Penn State students will continue to be more diverse, bringing new opportunities for educating students of all backgrounds, achieving institutional goals and fostering a welcoming and inclusive campus community, Barron said.

“As projections indicate that future students will be drawn to higher quality, more selective schools, we know we must continue to offer a quality Penn State education with positive outcomes and remain competitive in need-based aid to drive enrollments,” Barron said. 

At the board meeting, Barron provided a snapshot of the University’s proactive work across the following areas:

  • Recruitment: Along with increased efforts to attract Pennsylvania students, the University is ramping up out-of-state recruitment initiatives and enrollment marketing in areas of the country with higher numbers of high school graduates, while also expanding outreach globally in South America and Africa with guidance from a new task force. 
  • Attendance barriers: In addition to its Open Doors programs, which offer scholarships and financial aid, the University is helping to reduce attendance barriers and support students with significant financial need with Discover Penn State Awards. The awards are given across all Commonwealth Campuses and are accompanied by best-practice academic advising and financial counseling.  
  • Transfer credits: With a 25% increase in transferable courses since July 2018, Penn State is becoming more “transfer friendly.” In place is a new taskforce to streamline transfer credits, along with the launch of a new transfer credit tool and a review system for military course evaluations.
  • Adult learners: Through initiatives like One Penn State 2025, the University is boosting efforts to accommodate adult learners — who comprise 20% of full-time undergraduates and 80% of World Campus students. Across the Commonwealth Campuses, 20% of students are part-time adult learners. 
  • Diversity and inclusion: As a moral, educational and business imperative, Penn State is investing in diversity, equity and inclusion across every campus through recruitment efforts and University and philanthropic support, including for students who are the first in their families to attend college. 
  • Common Application: Through the Common Application, Penn State gains access to students who may not have otherwise considered the University. Since its adoption in 2018, there has been a 35% growth in applications received, with the majority coming from out-of-state students. 
  • Accepted-student programming: Efforts to provide more robust programming for accepted students include enhancing on- and off-campus events and tours in key areas, adding virtual programs for accepted students and encouraging targeted alumni outreach to prospective students. 
  • Retention: Efforts focused on retention, student engagement and degree completion include a new Student Success Center in the Office of Undergraduate Education, new University-wide Student Success Coalition, enhanced financial literacy programming and academic advising, and membership in the American Talent Initiative and the APLU’s Powered by Publics, among other initiatives. 

“Looking to the future, Penn State is prepared to meet the needs of a changing student population,” Barron said. “We are in a good position to sustain enrollments given the University’s high retention and graduation rates of our students, quality of faculty and research, growing endowments and philanthropic support, alumni networking and engagement, and many other factors.”

To view Barron’s full presentation, visit



Last Updated November 19, 2019