If you’re a booster of Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities, there’s a decent chance you had a knot in your stomach last week before a consultant unveiled a report on how the system that operates the schools should be fixed.
Perhaps the worst of all fears did not materialize. There was no recommendation any of the institutions, almost all of which have seen declining enrollment and wobbly finances, should be shut down. Nevertheless, the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems recommended some strong medicine to restore health to the State System of Higher Education.
While it did not recommend any campuses put out the closed-for-keeps sign – including Cheyney University, the historically black school near Philadelphia that now enrolls fewer students than some high schools – it did recommend some of them cut staff and consolidate programs to make up for declining enrollment and a long stretch of declining subsidies from the Legislature. The report also found too often the universities compete with one another rather than collaborate, the chancellor’s office needs to shift its focus from management to policy and the board of regents needs to be depoliticized, with its membership shorn of elected officials, employees or university trustees.
Chancellor Frank T. Brogan said he was “comfortable” with what the report had to say, and “it took on very candidly some of the key issues that I personally believe and professionally believe need to be dealt with to create a more sustainable system.”
And, keeping the system sustainable is vitally important, not just for students, faculty and other employees, but for the whole commonwealth. State system schools like California University of Pennsylvania, along with Cheyney and the institutions in Slippery Rock, Indiana, Mansfield, Clarion, Millersville, Shippensburg, West Chester, Edinboro, Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, East Stroudsburg and Kutztown, are essential to the economic health of the communities and regions in which they are located.
For many who attend universities in the State System, it is their only option to partake of higher education because they want or need to stay close to home and, more often than not, it’s the only option they can afford. Tuition costs for undergraduates are a little more than $7,000 per year, which was a pretty penny back when the State System of Higher Education was born in 1982, but is still considerably less than the price tag at a state-related school like the University of Pittsburgh, or a private school like Washington & Jefferson College.
Unfortunately, the state has not been giving the schools support commensurate with their importance. Thirty-five years ago, 67 percent of campus operations were funded by the state. Now, 29 percent are. Students and their families are left to pick up more and more of the bill. Even as the state is slowly increasing funding after years of cuts, there will be a 3.5 percent tuition increase in the 2017-18 academic year to help offset a projected $71 million budget deficit.
Of the 50 states, Pennsylvania ranks 48th in higher-education funding. Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at Washington, D.C.-based Pell Institute, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Pennsylvania is a national leader in turning against its own higher education system. When you’re 48th or 49th, can you say anyone is awake at the switch? The state has essentially said it doesn’t care. The state has utterly failed.”
It’s overdue for Harrisburg to show it does care.