Buyouts urged to cuts costs at 14 state universities

July 13, 2017

Consultants who were hired to review the struggling State System of Higher Education made a number of recommendations Wednesday, one of which suggested the Pennsylvania Legislature offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to downsize the 14 state-owned universities, including California University of Pennsylvania.

The Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems also suggested the State System’s board of governors be replaced by a board of regents who are lay people who would offer more power to the trustees of universities that are doing well and less to those who lead schools that are facing financial problems.

“You can’t keep raising tuition to fill the gap,” said the center’s former president, Dennis Jones, who presented its findings to the board of governors’ finance committee. The state system last summer called for a top-to-bottom review of the schools to “ensure long-term viability,” leading to the hiring of the center, which has carried out more than 100 meetings at each of the campuses as part of the study, board Chairman Cynthia D. Shapira said. The review was approved at a time when the State System has been met with stagnant state funding and declining enrollments.

Meanwhile, the committee also made the recommendation Wednesday the full board of governors approve today a 3.5 percent tuition increase for the next term. It would raise last term’s annual tuition of $7,238 by $253.

“No number is ideal,” Shapira said.

The board of governors will review the findings and determine the next steps over the months ahead, it stated on the State System’s website.

The board also had no plans to close any of the universities going into the review.

“As we have stated before, other states have undertaken mergers or closures, but our goal is to find solutions that are right for Pennsylvania,” the State System stated.

The center did not call for any of the 14 universities to be closed or merged or the unions be targeted to save money. Jones recommended more professors be included in efforts to share governing the schools.

Cal U. is among those that are facing challenges. It will erase a $1.7 million deficit this term by drawing that amount from its reserve fund, leaving $8.6 million in that account. The deficit spending was blamed, in part, on increases in payroll for union contracts.

The Cal U. union faculty also has been put on notice that professor layoffs are on the table.

The university had 7,553 students attending classes last fall, down 20 percent from a record high of 9,483 in 2001.

“The shrinking pool of high school graduates and their ability to pay (for tuition) is reaching limits,” Jones said.

Jones said the State System is built on a policy of growth “that can’t be sustained because the growth isn’t there.”

He said Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation in terms of spending on higher education.

“You have institutions that have been twisting in the wind for at least five years,” Jones added.

He also urged the universities to build a climate of trust and transparency and change their focus to making students their first priority.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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