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Clashing visions for future of state system

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The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is at a crossroads as internal and external factors, as well as changing times, present challenges.

In 2017, the system commissioned the nonprofit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to conduct a review, and have now moved into the early stages of a system redesign.

At the same time, the state General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee hired RAND Corp. to do its own study, released in April. That study proposed more radical changes.

Although their suggestions differed, the two studies found that the major issues facing the state system are enrollment decline and reduced state funding, which has put more of the financial burden on students and their families.

Funding for public colleges took a hit during the last recession. Nationwide states reduced funding to public colleges and universities by a combined $3 billion dollars. Most states, including Pennsylvania, started to restore some of that funding, but not all.

This year, the Pennsylvania system is receiving about the same amount as in 2002, but not adjusted for inflation. The state system serves about 1000,000 students at 14 universities, including Millersville and Shippensburg in Central Pennsylvania.

College enrollment, meanwhile, has steadily declined nationwide for the past five years, due to the decrease in youth population. While the drop is expected to level off over the next several years, there is no indication enrollment will increase anytime soon, which affects all sectors of higher education. According to Rand, enrollment in the state system fell 13 percent between 2010 and 2016, And it said 11 universities were operating at a deficit as of 2016, though it acknowledged it could be a result, in part, of changes in accounting rules for retiree pensions.

State system spokesman Kenn Marshall said that while it can’t control the changing demographics, it is looking into ways to adapt, such as attracting more adult learners/non-traditional students, and increasing enrollment in online education.

The three priorities for the system’s redesign are ensuring student success, leveraging university strengths, and transforming the governance/leadership structure. Some of the first steps included eliminating outdated policies. For example, the system streamlined the program approval process, a change appreciated by faculty, according to Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, a union representing faculty and coaches.

The system also is looking into areas where universities can combine their efforts to help keep costs down, such as financial aid administration. The universities already share certain services, including payroll, benefits administration, legal services and construction services.

While the RAND study listed a redesign as one option, it argued the problems are far too serious and recommended bigger changes, such as merging universities, converting them to state-related universities, placing them under the management of a state-related university for a period of time, or merging them into the state-related universities as branch campuses.

“We do not see a continuation of the current system as likely to address the challenges; major structural changes are needed,” the RAND report concluded.

Both Marshall and Mash disagreed with the RAND findings, raising concerns that such big changes could hurt students. They noted that, as the RAND report itself acknowledges, the suggestions could increase costs and reduce education options and opportunities.

“We would not want to see any changes made that negatively impact students,” said Marshall, who also said the changes could impact communities where the universities are located. In some areas, they are among the largest employers.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re committed to maintaining all 14 of our institutions long-term,” said Marshall.

While those efforts including cutting costs and streamlining bureaucracy, they may also include stronger advocacy for the system at the legislative level.

“Some other systems do a much better job of talking publicly, as well as to the Legislature, about the opportunities that are afforded to students through public higher education, and how that not just benefits students, but the state overall,” Mash said.

“I’ve been to all 14 campuses many times, spoken to students on all of those campuses, and there are just amazing things happening every day,” Mash added. “The story of the state system is, overall, the story of success, of students doing well, staying in the commonwealth, and achieving, and that story has really got to be told more. There’s too much of a focus on what the problems might be."

Marshall described it as an investment: “About 90 percent of our students are from Pennsylvania, most of them stay here after they graduate, contributing to the state’s economy. The last economic impact study we did indicated that for every dollar we receive from the Commonwealth, generates about $11 in economic activity.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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