Legislators propose bill to split up Pennsylvania-owned university system
HARRISBURG — Healthier state-owned universities that meet certain criteria could leave the state system and become state-related universities like Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh, which receive some taxpayer money but are largely privately funded, under a bipartisan bill introduced on Tuesday.
The bill faces an uphill climb, and the sponsors said it's just the beginning of a debate in the Legislature.
House Democratic leader Mike Hanna of Clinton County warned that a system split would raise tuition.
“Secession may be a short-term fix at a time when Pennsylvania needs a long-term solution,” said Hanna, the minority whip and a member of the state board that oversees 14 state-owned universities under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
But Sens. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, and Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, said doing nothing will result in financial failure of certain institutions.
“I am concerned by what appears to be a house of cards, in terms of both finances and demographics,” Dinniman said.
Others defended the system.
Karen M. Whitney, president of Clarion University, said it “believes in the mission of the system and its value to the Commonwealth.” Clarion is retooling its curriculum and recruitment because of a 17 percent decline in enrollment since 2010.
State System Chancellor Frank Brogan said many concerns the bill's supporters raised merit discussion, but he warned the proposals could have unintended consequences for students.
“For any university that leaves the State System, tuition and fees will likely go up. ... This would create an added burden for students and their families,” Brogan said.
Even Tomlinson conceded tuition probably would increase about $500 to $1,000 in the first year if West Chester, the largest school in the system, opted out.
Tomlinson said Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, plans an April hearing.
The senators released a chart compiled by Moody's on the relative financial health of state-owned universities. Dinniman, a West Chester professor, said the “annual operating margin” in the chart represents “money left over after they pay their bills.” The lower the number, the more at-risk the school, Dinniman said
According to Moody's, only Cheyney University had a negative score when scores were averaged over five years; Edinboro was at 0.01 percent and Millersville, 1.20 percent. In 2013, however, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Mansfield, Millersville and Slippery Rock fell in negative territory.
In the best shape financially, according to Moody's, are West Chester, Kutztown, Lock Haven, and Bloomsburg universities.
Under the bill, to become a state-related university, a state-owned school must have a student population of more than 7,000 and the financial ability to compensate the state for depreciated property paid for by taxpayers. It must continue contributing the employer share for pension obligations.
“This is a very interesting move and one we at least need to take a look at,” said Sen. Patricia Vance, R-Cumberland County.
Though Dinniman said the bill is not “anti-union,” the union representing state system faculties said the changes would hurt students and taxpayers by potentially tripling tuition and eliminating state oversight and accountability.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Debra Erdley contributed.