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Explaining Penn State’s Potentially Record-Size Freshman Class

With nearly 8,600 first-year enrollments possible come the fall, Penn State’s University Park campus could end up having its largest freshman class in school history.

The university announced last month that an unexpected uptick in acceptances close to the May 1 deadline resulted in the larger-than-expected class, about 1000 more than enrolled in the 2015 freshman class and 500 more than in 2014. A flux in enrollments is not unusual — in recent years the freshmen classes at University Park have hovered between 6,000-8,000 to maintain an overall undergraduate enrollment of around 40,000. Though Penn State won’t know exactly how large the class will be until students are settled in the fall, the spike this spring did come as a bit of a surprise.

“Penn State understands the balance that the University needs to maintain within our community and also the capacity challenges that come with a larger incoming class,” spokeswoman Heather Hottle Robbins said. “The increase in 2016 freshman enrollment was not part of a calculated growth plan, but an offshoot of a number of complex factors, some of which were unexpected.”

How did they get here?

In addition to the apparent conclusion that Penn State remains a popular choice for college-bound students, two factors played a role in the high number of accepted admissions.

First is a recent trend of volatility among the number of applications received and the yield on offers of admission. “The number of applications does not always reflect the number of college-going prospects, but rather behavioral patterns of prospective students regarding how many schools they apply to; this in turn impacts yield, since each student can only accept the offer from one school,” Robbins said.

In short, a relatively static number of students may be applying to a larger smaller pool of schools, making it more difficult to project the yield on offers of admission. And Penn State saw a surge in acceptances late in the game. Vice President for Undergraduate Education Rob Pangborn said in May that, though overall application numbers had been trailing the previous year by a few percentage points, in the week leading up to the admissions deadline, “We had a very significant increase in acceptance of offers… an 8.4 percent increase in acceptance.”

A new student information system played a secondary role.

Robbins said that during the application cycle, the university transitioned from its decades-old legacy system called the Integrated Student Information System to a new system, LionPATH. While the prior system was modified over the years and had become familiar across the university, LionPATH added “hundreds of additional data fields,” that ultimately delayed the timing of some offers Robbins explained.

“This added complexity impacted the timing of certain steps of the admissions process Penn State traditionally follows, including when some offers were sent to prospective students,” she said. “Even with this delayed timing, the University still saw an increase in student acceptances, demonstrating the desire to pursue a Penn State degree.”

What now?

With the increase in first-year students, Penn State needs to find ways to accommodate them.

On campus, the university is exploring how to best utilize it’s existing residence space. Returning students with housing contracts are being offered the opportunity to opt-out without losing their deposits, should they wish to live off-campus. And the school is trying to encourage some local students to spend the first year commuting from home.

But a new option is also on the table. A special “1+3” scholarship is being offered on a first-come, first-served basis to 500 students accepted in the University Park freshmen class. Those who accept it will receive a financial incentive to attend one of Penn State’s other campuses for their first year and have the option of moving to University Park their sophomore year.

Through a combination of reduced tuition at Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses and scholarship money, Pennsylvania residents who accept the offer will receive first-year cost reductions of $10,000 and non-Pennsylvania residents would see costs reduced by $15,000. Those who choose the offer and pick a campus with available housing — Beaver, Greater Allegheny, Hazleton or Mont Alto — would get a $5,000 housing grant. The increased revenue from additional tuition will in part pay for the scholarships.

What’s next?

The extra tuition revenue from a larger class would seem like a boon to Penn State’s bottom line. But on closer examination things are more likely to even out.

In addition to supporting the 1+3 scholarships to make some breathing room at University Park, Robbins noted, “With that additional tuition comes the increased cost of doing business with a larger student body. The increased tuition revenue will allow the University some flexibility to offset these costs.”

With an expansion of four-year programs at Commonwealth Campuses, about 600 fewer students each year transfer to University Park, instead taking advantage of lower tuition at other campuses. Meanwhile, Robbins said Penn State’s admissions office will evaluate a number of factors as it determines target enrollments for next year.

“There is always some fluctuations in class sizes year to year,” Robbins said. “In previous years, despite the fluctuations in first-year class size, overall full-time undergraduate enrollment at University Park remained near the 40,000 mark.”

Given historical trends, the first-year class of 2017-18 would seem likely to be a smaller group.

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