Pennsylvania’s public university crisis, and what the fixes could be

A new report on the troubled state system of higher ed drops this afternoon.

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
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The future of Pennsylvania’s mostly struggling 14 state universities will be set in motion this afternoon.

After months of audits and campus visits, a third-party consulting firm will explain its study of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and provide recommendations to the group’s Board of Governors (you can watch the presentation here at noon). While the state education system gets less funding — and public attention — than the state-related schools like Temple, Penn State and Pitt, they educate about 105,000 students, many of whom come from working class backgrounds in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and rural Pennsylvania. And thanks to demographic changes, decreased state funding and tuition hikes all but a handful of the 14 schools, notably West Chester and Slippery Rock, are shedding enrollment and suffering from financial issues.

The upcoming changes are expected to be significant. Multiple universities are running out of money, to the extent that if nothing is done they’ll be broke by next summer, and officials for PASSHE have consistently said the current financial path of the system is not sustainable. Mergers and closures of schools have even been rumored, though the latter is particularly unlikely.

Based on conversations with professors, PASSHE officials and higher ed analysts, here’s a breakdown of everything that’s wrong with these universities and what the recommendations are for fixing it.

The biggest problems

Demographics and the rise of cities

Pennsylvania doesn’t have as many high school-aged kids as it used to. From 2010 to 2015, the number of college-bound high school graduates dropped from 95,000 to 87,000. That’s a particular problem for the PASSHE schools, which get about 90 percent of their student population from Pennsylvania. Enrollment across the board has gone down from a high of about 120,000 in 2010 to 105,000 last fall.

This problem is exacerbated by Pennsylvania probably having too many universities to begin with. It has one of the highest ratios of available college seats to in-state students in the country. As is, about 80 percent of Pennsylvanians interested in college stay in state. But even if 100 percent of them stayed home for college approximately 10 to 15 percent of available seats at Pennsylvania universities would be still be unfilled.

State-related schools like Temple, Penn State and Pitt have been able to cushion the decline by recruiting out-of-state and international students. Not only that, they’ve seen their enrollment of Pennsylvanians increase by about 4 percent from 2010 to 2014, despite a smaller pool to choose from.

Their ability to continue attracting in-state students could be a product of Pennsylvania seeing the results of America’s widening income gap and its geographical effects. The wealthier, college-educated people clustering toward cities — even if they’re originally products of the PASSHE system — have children with less desire to attend universities like Bloomsburg or Lock Haven. And then the more rural communities the PASSHE schools would traditionally draw from are seeing worse population hits than the rest of the state.

Budget cuts

Governor Tom Corbett made drastic education cuts when he was in office, and the schools haven’t recovered. From 2011 to 2016, higher ed funding per student declined 19 percent, the fourth-steepest drop in the nation. The state used to provide two-thirds of these universities’ funding when PASSHE was formed in 1983. It now provides 25 percent.  

Tuition hikes have become the norm. Pennsylvania’s state universities had identical tuition of $7,238 last fall, up about 33 percent accounting for inflation since 2000. But tuition prices have long been going up. From 2005 to 2010, tuition went up 8 percent and enrollment still increased from 107,000 to 120,000.

The demographic problem and general switch in college preferences are likely having a greater impact.

Penn State branch campuses

Many legislators and state system advocates see Penn State as a villain in PASSHE’s struggles. Starting in the late 1990s, most of its 19 branch campuses began offering four-year programs, significantly upping competition in the rural areas of Pennsylvania where the state universities are located.

Penn State president Eric Barron was questioned by lawmakers in Harrisburg earlier this year. He said it was “very hard to see” Penn State as leeching students from PASSHE. It’s been rumored Penn State could even begin collaborating with PASSHE.

Cheyney

Cheyney is in a category of its own, facing tens of millions of dollars in unpaid debts to PASSHE and other creditors and seeing enrollment dwindle from about 1,500 to 750 in the last five years. Earlier this year, it accepted an $8 million line of credit from PASSHE. The school has not had a full-time president in years.

In the background of its precarious financial situation is belief by alumni and other supporters PASSHE has been shortchanging Cheyney on funding for decades. It’s led area legislators like Sen.. Sharif Street (D-3) to speak up for the school in legislative sessions.

“Cheyney is in a growth region,” Street said. “It shouldn’t be an issue of filling the seats. We just have to make sure the system is committed to its survival.”

Cheyney is likely to be the one of the main schools in mind for any proposals made by the PASSHE consultant.

The possible fixes

Closures and mergers?

The biggest fear for these schools, especially for faculty, alumni and students of Cheyney University, would be the recommendation of closure. A handful of small private colleges nationwide close every year, but the modern closure of a public university, particularly one as closely entwined with state government as the PASSHE schools are, would be nearly unprecedented.

Earlier this year, PASSHE chancellor Frank Brogan said there would be no “sacred cows” as the system figured out its path going forward. At the same time, he downplayed the possibility of closure.

The state of Georgia has provided a possibility for how mergers could work, having consolidated 14 universities into seven since 2011. The schools that would most likely face the prospect of closure or merger would be Clarion in Western Pennsylvania, Mansfield in Northern Pennsylvania and Cheyney. Mergers, if based on the Georgia pattern, would involve keeping every campus open but combining programs, faculty and business operations between two schools and sharing a name. So even though a campus like Cheyney’s or Mansfield’s would still be operating, it could lose its name and identity.

Emphasizing adult education

Many of the people who drop out of college want to continue their education later on in life. This trend has been seen in the accelerated growth of adult education. Given many of PASSHE’s campuses don’t offer the lifestyle accommodations sought by traditional 18-to-22 year-old students, there’s been talk of formalizing a strategy for PASSHE to better focus or even prioritize adult and nontraditional student education.

Modernizing academic programs

Clarion, though it is still struggling, has shifted from its history as a school focused on education and more traditional liberal arts subjects to one focusing on health and sciences. Some of the most popular degree programs are now speech pathology and nursing, as well as a new criminal justice major. The move has allowed it to increase its recruiting foothold in Western Pennsylvania and even into Ohio.

Kenn Marshall, spokesperson for PASSHE, said in an interview this spring the system could discover it needs to overhaul the academic offerings at the 14 schools comprehensively, so campuses aren’t competing against one another for the same students interested in a particular major offered across the board.

Sharing resources

PASSHE has centralized some of its payroll and clerical work for years, but it likely hasn’t gone far enough. It could consolidate many of the behind-the-scenes services offered at the individual universities into one central location. The trick here, along with many proposed changes, will be unions. The system’s various unions are strong and will likely be opposed to any consolidations that lead to layoffs or attrition.

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