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The Citizens' Voice: States should ensure opportunity for college students

| Wednesday, May 9, 2018, 1:12 p.m.

If state lawmakers view the resolution to the crisis facing the state university system only as a matter of balancing the books, a resolution will be easy. They can close campuses, dismiss faculty, eviscerate programs and raise tuition.

But if they want to stabilize the system while maintaining its crucial role in driving the broader economy, elevating students to the middle class and ensuring a wide array of higher education opportunities for Pennsylvanians, it will be a much heavier lift.

A legislative hearing this week regarding a Rand Corp. study of the 14-university system raised doubt about whether some legislators are up to the task.

Pennsylvania ranks 47th among the states in per capita state support for higher education. Its current appropriation to the state system is $453 million, plus $564 million to state-affiliated universities Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln. Rep. Robert M. Tomlinson, a Bucks County Republican, asked at the hearing whether it makes sense for the state to allocate more to the state system's “competitors” than to the state-owned system.

Diminishing support for the state-supported institutions is not the answer to the state system's problems. Those institutions are far different than the state schools, and they use their state money to reduce tuition for in-state students. Reducing that money for a prospective Penn State or Pitt student, for example, likely will not result in that student going to Mansfield or East Stroudsburg universities instead.

The objective must be to ensure broad opportunity. That's why Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed maintaining the commitment to the state-affiliated schools while increasing funding for the state system this year by 3.3 percent, $15 million.

Beyond inadequate state support, the state schools suffer from fewer prospective students in their traditional markets and inadequate flexibility to increase their marketability.

The Rand report made some sound suggestions, such as creating regional institutions to better use resources and end the schools' functioning as 14 islands, eliminating redundant administration and modernizing management.

Lawmakers should reject others, however, such as putting the system under the management of one of the state-affiliated schools or converting the state schools into state-affiliated schools.

As they ponder a resolution, lawmakers should make their goal the greatest possible opportunity for the greatest number of Pennsylvania students — the reason that the state system exists in the first place.

— The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre

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