Mahoning Valley Colleges React to Low Enrollment

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Fewer students are walking the halls of public universities and colleges in the region – illustrating the robust job market, declines in population and the difficult decisions ahead.

College and university administrators are faced with year-over-year enrollment declines and the resulting drops in revenue from tuition and fees. While many public institutions received millions in federal COVID-19 relief funding last year, those temporary reserves are being exhausted, forcing administrators to innovate and drastically cut costs.

On Oct. 25, the Youngstown State University Board of Trustees cleared the way for budget cuts that could result in staff and program cuts. The first phase of the plan is expected to be announced by Nov. 15.

At a closed-door meeting Oct. 28 between faculty union leaders and administrators, YSU Provost Brien Smith listed 25 academic programs that would be discontinued (See opposite page).

Smith says his objective is to realize “millions of dollars … maybe less than five million” in cuts in a phased approach by the fall semester of 2022.

Earlier in October, the YSU Office of Academic Affairs and Office of Finance and Business Operations reported fall 2021 enrollment levels hit an “all-time low” of 11,298 students, or 9,031 full-time equivalents enrolled, a 7.3% year-over-year decline. This resulted in a $2.6 million hit to revenue from fees and tuition compared to the same period last year.

Other regional campuses report similar drops. Fall enrollment systemwide for Kent State University is down 4% overall, with the main campus seeing a 1% drop and another 11% decline among its seven regional campuses, including Trumbull and Columbiana counties, says Sean Broghammer, interim vice president for enrollment management. 

“That was one of the higher declines we’ve experienced in the past decade,” Broghammer says.

Penn State Shenango saw its fall enrollment drop 10 to 15 students from last year, putting it in the mid-300 range, reports its director of enrollment, Chuck Greggs. The campus has seen enrollment declines for the last 10 years. Because it’s a commuter campus, most students come from the five-county region, Greggs says.

Data from the 2020 U.S. Census show steep declines in overall population since 2010. Mahoning County lost more than 10,200 residents in that time, and Trumbull County about 8,300. The population of Columbiana County fell by nearly 6,000. In Pennsylvania, Lawrence County saw a loss of just over 5,000. Mercer saw its population drop by nearly 6,000.

As the region’s population shrinks, so does the size of high school graduation classes, reducing the pool of prospective college applicants where many of these campuses pull from.


The so-called demographic cliff is driven largely by a drop in the national birth rate since the Great Recession in 2008 and exacerbated by the pandemic in 2020. To attract students locally and abroad, public universities are developing niche study areas.

Education in science, technology, mathematics and engineering, or STEM, “continues to be strong” at YSU, Smith says. In July, YSU celebrated the opening of the Excellence Training Center in partnership with Eastern Gateway Community College, America Makes, the Youngstown Business Incubator, Youngstown City Schools, and the career and technical centers in the Mahoning Valley.

The $12 million center will allow students to access a robotics lab, CNC machining, 3D printing, metrology and other resources.

“This is a showpiece for us,” Smith says. “This is the stuff that will allow students to get hands-on. But it allows us to do research as well so we can help manufacturers in the region.”

Other areas of growth include the university’s undergraduate nursing and online MBA programs – both of which are seeing double-digit growth – as well as its online degrees in education, Smith says. YSU is also exploring more online offerings.

“Our strategy is to look at the kinds of programs that are in demand in the region and try to find ways to promote those,” he says. “It’s not that we want to move away from a well-grounded liberal arts platform for students. But in these trying times, we certainly have an obligation to find the kind of programs that are going to attract students.”

YSU recently reduced its out-of-state surcharge by 94% to $15 per credit hour, down from $250, says Neal McNally, vice president of finance. He expects to see more applicants east of Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania.

“So far it hasn’t had a huge impact. But it hasn’t hurt,” he says. “Where we’re likely to see the growth is among international students.”

As the university identifies areas for investment, its strategy includes eliminating areas “that don’t show that type of promise,” McNally says. “That is where the decision making gets difficult. We’re going to have to figure out how to survive with an intensely competitive higher education marketplace.”

Fall enrollment at YSU is down 7.3% from 2020.

Moving forward, strategic planning takes into account declining enrollment and its effects, including smaller class sizes. “We think we’re well positioned to make the structural budget decisions for the long-range financial stability of the university,” he says.

Kent State has effected “voluntary separations” with faculty and staff over the last three years, Broghammer says. Workforce reductions are considered permanent and the university “critically looks at all vacant positions to determine whether they need to be refilled,” he says.

Including voluntary separations and any new hires, Kent State has 400 fewer employees now than pre-pandemic.

“Everything is evaluated individually,” Broghammer says. “It forces us to think creatively – think differently. … That has honestly put us in a pretty good position and allows us to be better prepared as the demographic cliff keeps coming.”

For the last five years, Grove City College in Pennsylvania has retooled its recruitment approach and sharpened its message as a Christian liberal arts college, says Lee Wishing, vice president for student recruitment.“We’re unapologetic about that,” he says. “The strength of Christian scholarship is a rigorous pursuit of truth. So we say, ‘Come to Grove City and you can pursue truth freely.’

It’s worked. While the college has seen declines in the past, enrollment is 20% higher than expected with more than 600 freshmen, Wishing says.

“On top of that, we picked up another 51 transfer students,” he says. “So it was kind of a banner year for us between new freshmen and new transfers.”


In the current labor market, students in the Kent community, as well as those near its regional campuses, are taking hourly jobs that “pay higher wages than we’ve ever seen,” Broghammer says, thus affecting enrollment.

To attract and retain students, Kent is tying academic programs to in-demand careers and industries in those geographic areas, strengthening transfer pathways with two-year institutions and targeting enrollment campaigns to adult learners, he says.

This is on par with the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s emphasis on retention and graduation rates. Chancellor Randy Gardner says he’s seen an “unmistakable trend” in increasing graduation rates across the state.

For example, graduation rates at YSU have increased 16% over the last five years, he says. And recent data show Ohio universities have the fourth-best retention rate in the country. “That’s something we want to continue to build on,” Gardner says.

“Enrollment certainly matters. But actual attainment [and] graduation is even more important,” he says. “It’s not where we need to be for our state. But we’ve definitely made progress in graduation rates.”

An “astounding number” of Ohioans, some 1.5 million, have some college credit but no degree, Gardner adds. So the state effected new programs to welcome adult learners back to the classroom.

College Comeback alleviates obstacles like outstanding debts, such as library fees or parking tickets, or previous economic challenges. Beginning Nov. 1, universities and colleges can enroll students in the Second Chance program, which offers a $2,000 grant to eligible students.

“We hope if it’s successful, that will build additional awareness and support for individuals to come back to build on their previous credits that they’ve earned,” the Ohio chancellor says.

At Penn State Shenango, athletics have helped to stabilize enrollment, according to Greggs. Since starting men and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball, each program has drawn 12 to 20 students, which is “a pretty significant increase in enrollment,” he says.

The programs have also drawn students from Youngstown, Cleveland, Akron and Toledo, as well as Michigan, Florida, Georgia and Virginia. “Those are students we never would have had,” he says.

The Shenango campus added four new baccalaureate programs last year. This fall it completed an $8.5 million renovation of its Forker Lab building to drive enrollment in STEM majors.

Now that high schools can again visit the campus, Greggs expects more awareness will be raised for those resources. A recent tour of the Forker Lab with 30 high school guidance counselors had them eager to bring their students to participate in activities, he says.

Ultimately, Greggs would like to see the campus increase enrollment to 600 or 700 students.

His strategy includes focusing on the “right kind of growth” by attracting higher quality students and keeping them all four years. A tiered scholarship program offers scholarships to high school seniors – at least a $3,000 scholarship for a 3.0 GPA. Scholarships are also available to adult learners and college transfers.


This year, Pennsylvania saw enrollment among its 14 state-owned universities drop below 89,000, its lowest level in more than 30 years. That’s down from a peak of some 119,500 in 2010.

The 5.4% decline is expected to equate to a $36 million loss in tuition and fees.

These numbers were released as the commonwealth already was looking to consolidate six universities into two institutions: California University, Clarion University and Edinboro University in the west, plus Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University and Mansfield University in the northeast.

Sharing programs is something Penn State Shenango does with other regional campuses, Greggs says. Additionally, the university’s World Campus of Penn State online platform allows students to take one or two online courses in addition to in-person classes.

“I think that’s something Penn State has been ahead of the curve on,” he says. “We saw those demographics for quite a while now and realized we’ve got to think differently and act differently.”

And while some in Ohio are closely watching consolidation efforts in Pennsylvania and asking “what if,” the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Gardner affirms no such proposal is being considered.

He says Ohio universities are already doing things that would make a consolidation unnecessary, including partnerships between two-year and four-year institutions, having 14 public universities with 24 regional campuses, and even partnerships between public and private institutions.

“We have some areas of the state where a student can simultaneously enroll in a community college and at an independent, private university” and have the same advisers, course collaboration and transfer of credits, he says.

“We want to strengthen enrollment and make progress on attainment,” Gardner reiterates. “We have a lot of things in place that I think should provide some optimism for the future.”

YSU Eyes Cutting 25 Academic Programs

After a closed-door session Oct. 28 between Youngstown State University administrators and members of the YSU-OEA, which represents faculty at the university, news broke that as many as 25 academic programs could end before the fall 2022 semester.

The university cited dwindling enrollment and class sizes for the cuts. Ending the programs could mean fewer than 20 faculty members would be eliminated. But they would have the option of lay off, buyout or transfer to another YSU department.

Programs being cut include:

Associate programs in electric utility technology, medical laboratory technology, emergency medical services, dietetic technician, computer information systems, medical assisting technology, drafting and design technology, and social services technology.

Baccalaureate programs in gerontology, Italian and Italian education, manufacturing engineering, religious studies, music theory, music history and literature, family and consumer students, computer information systems, dance management, French and art history.

Master’s level programs in music history and literature, art education, American studies, interdisciplinary visual arts, gerontology and creative writing.

Pictured: Revenue from tuition and student fees is down $2.6 million this fall at Youngstown State University.