Chancellor Brogan angles to retool universities in Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
Change is ahead for the 14 state-owned universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which enrolls more than 112,000 students.
Chancellor Frank Brogan, who took over in the fall amid enrollment declines, insists radical change can spawn a healthy system out of one going through serious financial problems by establishing programs unique to each school. Some legislators want an even more drastic overhaul.
“I still believe and many believe the system is headed for a train wreck,” said Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County.
Tomlinson and Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, plan to propose cutting the largest and financially healthiest schools loose from the state system. They will introduce legislation on Tuesday to allow the fittest schools to become quasi-public institutions if they enroll at least 7,000 students.
“There may be a need for some right-sizing, but my intention is that all schools survive and continue to exist. This will begin a very serious conversation that probably should have taken place earlier,” Tomlinson said.
State-owned schools are taking hits from three directions: state funding is drying up, enrollment is declining, and competition for students is increasing. In making his pitch for more state money, Brogan had a grim prediction for lawmakers.
“I am convinced unless the revenue picture changes for a number of our state universities in the PASSHE system, their future, their existence is in doubt. That's not a statement of philosophy. It's a statement of sheer math,” Brogan told them.
He identified Edinboro, Clarion and Mansfield, where enrollment slipped 18, 17 and 12 percent respectively in the past three years, as schools facing the most strain.
Brogan told the Tribune-Review that he is not advocating closing universities but is stressing the severity of the problem.
“What I'm trying to do is make the case for the future of all 14. Not only are we and the universities going to have to make some changes, but the state, at some point, is going to have to decide its responsibility,” he said.
He is asking that lawmakers increase funding for system schools from $412.8 million to $447.3 million next year. State support provides about 25 percent of the system's $2.18 billion budget. Tuition covers the rest.
Tomlinson and Dinniman have repeatedly complained that West Chester University, the only school to chart significant growth, has been hampered by system guidelines and financial restrictions. They fear it could suffer as the system juggles resources to prop up struggling schools.
“I am concerned by what appears to be a potential house of cards in terms of both finances and demographics,” Dinniman said when Brogan appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month pressing for a funding increase.
At California University of Pennsylvania, where enrollment slipped 12 percent from 2010 to 2013, Larry Maggi, chairman of the school's council of trustees, said there is no question major change is needed.
Schools statewide encounter a shrinking pool of high school graduates because of a declining birth rate. But Cal, at the edge of the Marcellus shale gas fields, is competing against the draw of gas jobs that pay well and do not require a college degree, said Maggi, a Washington County commissioner.
“It's kind of like it was in 1968 when kids would graduate and go to work in the coal mines or steel mills,” he said.
Rep. David Reed, R-Indiana, said the discussion comes up every few years.
“It's enhanced with a couple of state schools struggling, and a couple expanding. I don't think it will happen overnight, but it's a responsible discussion to have,” Reed said.
Rep. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro, whose rural district includes Mansfield University, said proposals to dismantle the system have little traction in Harrisburg. It would have serious financial ramifications for schools left behind, and those that leave and must acquire state property on campus.
“But I think there is a realization that we cannot continue to pursue the same models we have,” said Baker, a member of the system's board of governors.
Brogan said Indiana University of Pennsylvania's professional master's degree in applied and industrial chemistry is the type of unique program that can distinguish schools.
Officials at Edinboro and Clarion said they're adjusting offerings to fill empty seats.
Clarion President Karen Whitney called Brogan “candid, sharp and very thoughtful,” and said his assessment of the school's challenges was on point. She said his mention of Clarion triggered a flood of inquiries from students, alumni and community leaders asking how to help.
She said alumni giving is up, as the school works to start a new doctoral program in nursing, revamp its offerings and increase recruitment.
“I'm optimistic that by 2016, we will see the fruition of these efforts,” Whitney said.
Edinboro spokesman Jeff Hileman said applications and admissions for next fall are up. He said the school, near the Ohio border, hopes to recruit more out-of-state students because the state system let it reduce out-of-state tuition from 150 percent of resident tuition to 105 percent.
The school also wants to add more two-year degree programs in an region where there are no community colleges.
Brogan said such efforts are needed to maintain competitiveness in an area with about 300 schools, including state-owned, state-related and private nonprofit colleges and universities, as well as community colleges and for-profit institutions.
“There isn't a governance structure in higher education that isn't pricked occasionally to change. There is no perfect system. I believe the system will work and will continue to work, but everybody needs to better define their role,” Brogan said.
Deb Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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