By David Loomis
INDIANA – “Best wishes for a strong start to this new year,” IUP President Michael Driscoll said in concluding his Aug. 23 State of the University remarks to open its 2019-2020 academic year, his eighth and the university’s 144th. Note: He did not wish anyone a happy new year. Nor did he predict a happy end to the year in May.
One reason for the restraint rather than the customary rah-rah that attends such auspicious occasions is the university’s enrollment. It’s not official yet, but fall 2019 IUP enrollment is whispered to have plunged to a bit above 10,000 from a peak of 15,379 in academic year 2012-13. That would amount to a decline of one-third in seven years.
The last time IUP enrolled 10,000 students was in 1969 — 50 years ago, as the Baby Boom generation was cresting on college campuses. From 1963 to ’69, IUP enrollment nearly doubled in six years.
Moreover, the current decline only gets worse, according to projections. Around 2025, just in time for the university’s 150th anniversary, a demographic cliff is projected to arrive — and not only at IUP.
“Demographic projections show that the decline in new high school graduates … will accelerate after 2025,” Driscoll said. “The likelihood in our professional lifetimes of returning to the days of a 15,000-plus enrollment is slim to none.”
Driscoll was not breaking any news. He was echoing State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, among others. During an April 23 campus presentation, Greenstein showed a slide depicting the cliff. “Imagine” your way to “massive change,” Greenstein advised.
“I am sorry if the reality depressed you,” Driscoll told his campus audience last week.
FOR HIS INTERNAL AUDIENCE, Driscoll balanced the bad news with administrative steps he described as “good news.” But for external audiences – the residents of Indiana County, where IUP remains the largest employer and economic driver – it was Timothy Moerland, the university’s top academic officer, who extended a lifeline in the form of a business incubator.
“The IUP Steamshop,” Moerland said, “is a creative makerspace, an incubator for the IUP community.”
The steam in steamshop is an acronym for the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Among the goals of a steamshop, like a makerspace (and a hackerspace, a close cousin) is to boost local economic development.
This is not the first such incubator hosted by the university. And it’s not yet up to steam. But if the IUP Steamshop makes the IUP community a partner and beneficiary in its mission, then it will be surfing a wave of similar entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary outreach efforts at college communities across the country.
THE IUP COMMUNITY could use the boost to cope with declines that are rippling through the local economy — the off-campus rental market, for example — on waves of declining student headcounts. In April, local elected officials stressed to Chancellor Greenstein that the university is vital to the county’s — and the borough’s — economic health. One downtown business owner has described the relationship, in a word, as a “communiversity.”
One local elected official, however, said Greenstein dodged the communiversity question during his April visit. No problem: The chancellor can check his own agency to read a full report on the university’s impact on the local community.
In 2015, PASSHE measured the economic footprint of each of the 14 campuses in the state’s public university system. IUP’s was biggest of the bunch, at $636 million. The same was true of the combined economic and employment impacts of IUP, which reached nearly $1 billion.
Bottom line, the PASSHE report found that for every dollar invested by Pennsylvania in IUP, the university returned $12.16 to the commonwealth — second highest among the state system’s 14 schools.
As IUP President Driscoll noted in his Aug. 23 remarks, the current governor has restored some of the severe cuts to higher education that the system suffered under his predecessor. Nevertheless, crashing enrollment, frozen tuition and the system’s highest cost of attendance present challenges to prospects for a happy academic and economic year here.
HOW CAN AN AGING AND DECLINING county in Northern Appalachia help lift its economic anchor and itself?
Ours is not the only rural community in decline, demographically and economically, as journalists Deborah and James Fallows have been documenting for The Atlantic magazine in an effort to find what works to revive such places. One recent Fallows dispatch from Danville, Va., (home to a small university and empty factories) produced a handful of policy prescriptions that might help here.
- Creative uses of philanthropy, such as “community foundations” that grow out of sales of non-profit local hospitals to for-profit private corporations. The hundreds of such conversions in the past decade or so provide a silver lining of community philanthropy. (Might the labor-management-conflicted local hospital here be drawn into this process at some point?)
- Creative use of a one-time historical event. For Danville, it was the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement, which ultimately will pay state and local governments $246 billion for fraudulent claims made by tobacco companies, claims that continue to contribute to the hundreds of thousands of deaths linked to tobacco use.
The Fallows reported that for communities in Appalachia, similar settlements may arise from thousands of lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies for the opioid epidemic that has killed 400,000 Americans since 1999. Such settlements — like last week’s landmark ruling against Johnson & Johnson — could help restore and transform hard-hit communities in Appalachia.
- Public investment in such infrastructure improvements as broadband capacity. It benefited Danville. Proposals for such investment enjoy bipartisan support here, but action lags.
SOME RECENT INFRASTRUCTURE work has improved the communiversity’s curb appeal, thanks to fresh asphalt and curbs and gutters on campus-adjacent thoroughfares. The bone-shaking, traffic-stalling railroad crossing at Oakland Avenue and Grant Street at the southern end of campus has been smoothed.
A less tangible but more consequential improvement may be the Sept. 7 inauguration of tailgating at IUP athletic events.
“It seemed to be the right time,” IUP spokeswoman Michelle Fryling said of the university’s Aug. 29 announcement.
[Historical note: The first modern tailgate party reportedly preceded a football game between Rutgers and Princeton – in 1869.]
The overdue tailgating initiative complements the borough’s trend toward overturning prohibitions on serving adult beverages in sidewalk cafes and carrying open beverage containers during downtown celebrations, such as this coming weekend’s Northern Appalachian Folk Festival. Paired with emphasis on personal and academic responsibility (backed by diligent policing), such relaxations capitalize on the university’s long-standing good-time reputation, a welcome if belated recognition by the administration.
THESE CHANGES can enhance the experience economy in communities where they are adopted. And they offer reciprocal boosts to the university and the community that sustain each other here.
They are likely to need more.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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