State System secession proposal a mistake

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State universities, both here and elsewhere, have played essential roles in providing affordable education for students who can’t bear the expense of pricier institutions, propelling them into good-paying jobs and strengthening the economies of their communities.


Just as other state and federal supports for working and middle-class families have been weakened or eroded, two state senators have come forward with a proposal that would diminish the 14-school state university system, which includes California University of Pennsylvania.


Sen. Robert Tomlinson of Bucks County and Sen. Andy Dinniman of neighboring Chester County have proposed that universities within the State System be allowed to secede from it and become state-related universities if they so choose, like the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State. The requirements would include a 7,000-student enrollment benchmark, three years of solid audits and the wherewithal to buy their property back from the state over a 30-year span. If a university opted to become state-related rather than being part of the State System, they would also be able to pick their own presidents, determine their own tuition rates and make their own programming decisions.


In advance of a Senate Education Committee hearing April 8, Tomlinson and Dinniman say they are not trying to bust up the State System, but “improve” it.


“I think the system needs some work,” Tomlinson said Tuesday in a press conference at the Capitol.


But their idea of “improving” the State System seems all too reminiscent of those members of the armed forces who believed they were saving the village by destroying it back in the days of the Vietnam War.


With tuition for a Pennsylvania resident coming in at about $6,000 per year at a State System institution, but $16,000 at Pitt, and a few thousand on top of that at Penn State, it seems likely that any university that decides to go the state-related route would also have to jack up their sticker price. Frank T. Brogan, a chancellor within the State System and an opponent of the proposal, said it would “create an added burden for students and their families. Every university that leaves the State System could close another door to affordable, quality public higher education.”


Even Gov. Tom Corbett came out against it in an appearance in Pittsburgh Wednesday, describing it as “a mistake.”


This scheme also seems expressly designed to help one university and one university only, namely West Chester University, where Tomlinson happens to be a trustee and an alumni and where Dinniman once taught. West Chester, along with Bloomsburg, are the sole universities within the State System that have not seen enrollment declines over the last four years, which can probably be credited to the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Tomlinson, perhaps unintentionally, tipped his hand when he said, “I’d … like to put some money back and get some autonomy back in my local school.”


Rather than trying to strengthen the whole State System, allowing universities to bow out would turn it into a zero-sum, survival-of-the-fittest struggle, where the hardiest swim and the rest sink. Lawmakers owe it to us to find ways to make all the universities more robust and not give special favors to a few.


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