College life in Philly

What pushed Pennsylvania’s public universities to the brink of collapse

“There’s just not a plan for the future and the role of education in the Commonwealth.”

Chester County's Cheyney University is facing financial difficulties, along with many other Pennsylvania universities.

Chester County's Cheyney University is facing financial difficulties, along with many other Pennsylvania universities.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn
mark

Walk around Cheyney University at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, and you’d think the campus in Chester County is closed.

The lone sounds come from maintenance workers cutting the grass, long overdue for a mow. Nobody is walking around the quad, and even the student union is sleepy. It’s vacant except for one bookstore employee who, after asking what I’m doing, asks to see my business card and recommends I get permission from someone in the media relations office.

The sight is about what you’d expect to see at a proud college — the nation’s first HBCU — that just needed an $8 million line of credit and has numerous other financial problems. And though its plight is among the worst of any university in the state, most of its 13 peers in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are feeling the squeeze (universities like East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Clarion and Millersville). With the PASSHE saying it can’t afford to continue existing much longer in its current state, the governing body has undergone an intensive study of its universities that is supposed to be completed this summer, and closures and mergers are rumored possibilities.

Higher education has been in a bind nationally for years, but Pennsylvania is exceptional in its struggles. We’re in a real crisis. Funding has gone down for years and tuition up, and Pennsylvania might have too many universities and not enough students who want to go or can afford to go. As schools like Cheyney falter, state-related schools that get more money from the state but operate with less oversight — like Temple and Penn State — are thriving like never before.

And the biggest problem of all could be that in spite of the attention being paid in Harrisburg now, nobody is looking closely enough at the big picture of how all of Pennsylvania’s universities and colleges fit together.

“It’s hard to know what to do in Pennsylvania,” said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at Penn. “There’s just not a plan for the future and the role of education in the Commonwealth.”

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Many professors, lawmakers and education experts point to former Gov. Tom Corbett’s drastic education cuts as the beginning of the struggles for higher education.  From 2011 to 2016, Pennsylvania had the fourth-highest decline in higher ed appropriations per student in the country for public institutions, at -19 percent. Those cuts were accompanied by tuition hikes, with Pennsylvania’s universities going up an average of about 8 percent in the same timeframe.

The most prominent state-related universities, Penn State, Temple and Pitt, have seen enrollments grow slightly since then (Lincoln University has struggled). The PASSHE schools have gone from a high mark of 120,000 in 2010 to about 105,000 this year.

“With state system universities,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-7), “the students attending are very sensitive to this cost issue.”

But the problem is more complicated than pricier tuition, which is now $7,238. For years, the 14 PASSHE schools had been hiking tuition, which is identical for all of them. From 2005 to 2010, tuition went up about 8 percent, accounting for inflation. This came during a period that saw PASSHE enrollment grow from about 107,000 to 120,000, with new records set almost every year. So the tuition hikes back then weren’t a killer.

It could be that Pennsylvania has too many universities and now not enough interested students. In 2010, about 131,000 students graduated high school in Pennsylvania with 95,000 college bound. In 2015, the most recent year Department of Education has data for, there were 123,000 high school graduates and 87,000 college bound. The decline in graduates is expected to level off in the coming years.

Though some 80 percent of those college-bound Pennsylvanians stay in state, Pennsylvania still has a surfeit of college seats. If 100 percent of those residents stayed in state, Pennsylvania would still have between 10 and 15 percent of its available seats unfilled. Only about 10 states have a greater surplus.

Given the decline, one would think all colleges would be seeing fewer in-state students. That’s not what has occurred. Temple, Penn State and Pitt grew even the size of their freshman classes of in-state students by 4 percent from 2010 to 2014, the latest year for which Department of Education data is available (Pitt and Penn State have increased their number of out-of-state students by much more).

So Pennsylvanians just aren’t going to the PASSHE schools. With the mix of declining funding and less tuition revenue, some of the campuses have begun falling behind in appearance and in the quality of class offerings. They can’t afford to make themselves better to attract the Pennsylvanians looking for other options.

“When people retire you get shrinking programs, and the overall cost to the student has increased,” said Jamie Phillips, a philosophy professor at Clarion University in Western Pennsylvania. “Then we become less competitive to private schools and state-relateds. It’s a vicious cycle that starts when you take money away from higher education and put it in other places.”

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PASSHE launched an official study of its problems this year, paying a consulting firm what it claims will be no more than $500,000 to make visits to all 14 campuses this semester. In front of the legislature earlier this year, PASSHE chancellor Frank Brogan said there would be “no sacred cows,” but downplayed the possibility of closures.

The Senate also recently passed a resolution put forth by state Sen. David Argall (R-29) to launch its own study of PASSHE. But will either study — should Argall’s resolution pass the House — be what Pennsylvania needs? Finney doesn’t think either will be comprehensive enough, given neither is set to provide a full look at Pennsylvania’s higher education system beyond PASSHE.

“It’s really problematic,” Finney said. “They’re dealing with these mergers and PASSHE as an entity, when the problem is statewide. You can’t solve these problems within PASSHE. This takes a broader kind of examination of higher education.”

For years, people have been saying Penn State essentially created the equivalent of another PASSHE when it began offering four-year degrees at most of its branch campuses in the late 1990s. Most of those campuses are located near PASSHE schools. Branch campus enrollment is around 30,000 but, like PASSHE enrollment, has fallen since 2010.

“Take into account the spread of Penn State in damn near every county across Pennsylvania,” Hughes said, “and what has that had on the system for higher education in general?”

Old Main at Penn State

Old Main at Penn State

Wikimedia Commons

Argall earlier this year pointedly asked Penn State President Eric Barron during a hearing on higher education whether he thought the branch campuses were affecting PASSHE and why state-relateds were so much more successful in enrollment. Barron said it was “very hard to see” that Penn State was taking students away.

Other states have taken steps to examine their higher ed systems as a whole. Texas, for instance, has Closing The Gaps. Tennessee has Drive to 55. Its goal is to arm 55 percent of residents with a college degree or certificate. It took a bipartisan effort to create the plan and support from community colleges and technical schools to smaller four-year colleges and major universities, as well as the business sector.

Freshman state Sen. Sharif Street (D-3) has been outspoken about the need for higher education reform, especially for Cheyney. He said higher ed is not a prominent enough subject among his peers.

“I think it’s something people support as a general parameter,” he said, “but not high on the list of priorities.”

Finney said it would take “a lot of political will and courage” to start a statewide study and perhaps overhaul higher education in Pennsylvania in part because the universities that are still thriving, the state-relateds, might balk at the greater scrutiny.

“Penn State, Pitt and Temple — as much as they complain about state support — they would be scared to death if this was taken seriously,” Finney said. “We would have to set some priorities and they wouldn’t have as much freedom to do what they want to do. Especially if the state were really serious about improving education attainment and that we’d begin to attach money to how well institutions perform and whether they are serving low income and minority residents in Pennsylvania.”

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Of the three main state-relateds, only Temple has a track record of educating a significant number of low-income students. A recent study ranked Temple 322nd nationally out of more than 2,000 universities in “mobility,” the share of students at a college that came from a lower-income background and ended up in a higher-income background. Pitt ranked 1,326th and Penn State 1,328th.

Even the PASSHE schools bear greater scrutiny in this area. Though they have the reputation for serving the working class, only four of the 14 rank among the top 1,000 in mobility. West Chester, one of only two state schools experiencing enrollment growth, has a worse mobility track record than Penn State and Pitt and the other PASSHE schools, except for one.

UniversityPct. from bottom 40% of incomeSuccess rate (%)Mobility (%)National rank
Cheyney60.43521.287
Temple24.362.915.3322
Mansfield26.548.812.9599
California University of PA22.850.311.4870
Lock Haven20.952.310.9990
Indiana University of PA22.446.410.41,127
East Stroudsburg18.854.610.31,156
Slippery Rock19.552.210.21,176
Bloomsburg16.160.79.71,276
Edinboro23.341.69.71,290
Pitt16.458.29.51,326
Clarion21.843.59.51,336
Penn State16.257.29.31,388
Shippensburg14.562.49.11,447
Kutztown14.256.181,723
West Chester13.159.87.81,756
Millersville13.854.97.61,807

None of them compare to Cheyney, the school rumored to be on the chopping block. It ranks 87th nationally in mobility. Though lower-income students don’t have as high of a success rate as at the state-relateds, Cheyney takes in far more students from unprivileged backgrounds.

This prevailing sentiment of providing education for the working class comes through with anyone who talks about Cheyney. Whatever becomes of Pennsylvania higher education — and the drastic changes could happen as early as this year — professors and students are convinced a school like Cheyney with that kind of goal has to survive and not close or merge.

“It would never happen,” said Terrell Toomer, a freshman business marketing major. “It wouldn’t be good for any of us.”

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