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New PASSHE leader discusses changes, challenges in education

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Frank Brogan is chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Frank Brogan is chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. - (Photo / )

Since becoming chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its 14 universities in October, Frank Brogan has repeatedly indicated that the times are changing and PASSHE must as well.

Brogan recently answered the Business Journal's questions on some of the issues PASSHE is facing.

Q: PASSHE recently approved six trials of a concept you had expressed an interest in: Varying tuition rates. How could that concept change public higher education in Pennsylvania?

A: Higher education institutions across the country, both public and private, utilize a wide variety of pricing strategies to be responsive to the marketplace. PASSHE universities operate in a competitive higher education market, so pricing flexibility is becoming a more important tool for our universities to be able to offer a high-quality array of educational opportunities at an affordable price while addressing the costs of more expensive courses and programs.

A "one size fits all" approach to tuition and fees does not work for the state system. Providing our universities the opportunity to adjust their tuition rates up or down under certain circumstances — in response to market conditions — could be a valuable tool to ensuring they can continue to offer the appropriate programs to meet both student and workforce demand.

We haven't done this before, and it is potentially a major change for the Board of Governors and PASSHE. So we are going to study it, vet it and test it to see if it has the effect we intended it to have.

Speaking of tuition, a recent report by The Project on Student Debt put Pennsylvania as the third-highest student debt state overall, at $31,675, and two of the 20 public schools with the highest student debt nationally were PASSHE institutions. How is PASSHE addressing this problem?

PASSHE universities are focused on quality and affordability. Over the past decade, the Board of Governors has worked to hold down tuition and in most years has stayed close to the rate of inflation. Our average total cost of attendance — tuition, fees, room and board — is below the national average among public universities and significantly below the regional average, and our average debt per student is lower than the private and state-related universities in the commonwealth.

Even having done that, it is apparent that many of our students and their families are still struggling to make this important investment in their futures. That is a reflection of the economic realities we all face.

In response to declining state financial support, the universities have employed a host of efficiencies that have resulted in more than $250 million in cost savings during the past decade.

With students carrying almost 75 percent of the cost of their education, attention to identifying new resources and the careful use of existing revenues is of paramount importance. We must do even more to assist those students. That is why our new strategic plan calls for both additional cost-containment efforts and an increased level of private fundraising.

How important are pension issues to PASSHE's future?

The issues facing the state employee retirement systems are very important issues for PASSHE, with half of our employees participating in these pension systems. In fact, PASSHE's contributions for these plans will increase by $14.8 million this year due to the increased employer contribution rates — that would be the equivalent of a 1-and-a-half percent tuition increase. We will need to carefully evaluate any proposed pension reform to assess its impact on our universities.

Finally, it seems that PASSHE's role in the 14 universities has grown even as the state's percentage of their total funding has shrunk and fundraising and partnerships with the private sector become increasingly important. That's a difficult dynamic. Could we eventually see the evolving education environment reflected in an altered relationship between PASSHE and the universities?

PASSHE is not an office in Harrisburg. PASSHE is 14 public universities serving 112,000 students. The Board of Governors is already working to achieve a better balance between system-wide coordination and more local decision making, which will allow each of our universities to leverage its own strengths to advance the institution and the entire system. The tuition flexibility we just accomplished is one example of that.

Being part of a system allows our universities to leverage the buying power of 125,000 students and employees. There are services that the universities can do together that make us all more efficient and enhance services to our students. That's the benefit of the system.

It is also important to point out that the chancellor's office is allocated one-half of 1 percent of the system budget for its own operation, which provides for about 43 staff. That budget has shrunk as the state appropriation has declined over the years, so we are responding by right-sizing our own office and consolidating from five vice chancellors down to two. It is the right thing to do so that we can invest our resources into the highest priorities of the System.

About Frank Brogan

Frank Brogan holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in education from the University of Cincinnati and Florida Atlantic University. He began his academic career in 1978 as an elementary school teacher in Florida.

After working his way up the county school system and spending six years as its superintendent, he was elected Florida's commissioner of education in 1995. He then served as chancellor of the State University System of Florida from 2009 until being selected to lead the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a role he assumed in October 2013.

Testing tuition models

Historically, PASSHE universities have charged the same tuition to all resident students, but the board voted in January to authorize six pilot programs that allow differential tuition rates. They will be evaluated over a two-year period.

The pilots approved are as follows:

CaliforniaReduced tuition for active military, their spouses and their dependents to the amount students with military ties are reimbursed through G.I. assistance programs.
West ChesterReduced tuition for students at the PASSHE Center City location in Philadelphia by 10 percent.
Clarion University, East Stroudsburg and EdinboroEstablished new course- or program-specific fees to more appropriately cover the costs of offering their nursing programs and, at Clarion, the Communication and Speech Disorders program.
EdinboroReduced tuition for nonresident undergraduates to 105 percent of the resident rate from at least 150 percent of the resident rate.

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