State university system pledges to transform amid struggles

Make text smaller Make text larger

By Marc Levy

Leaders of Pennsylvania's state-owned university system promised lawmakers a transformation amid declining enrollments and rising costs, as well as lackluster state support that skeptical Republican lawmakers suggested was not a coincidence.

The hearing before the House Appropriations Committee came after the fall enrollment at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education fell below 100,000 for the first time since 2001. Public university systems in many states face similar challenges, including declining high school graduation numbers and stagnant post-recession state aid.

“The challenges that we're facing here in Pennsylvania, they're not unique, they're just super acute," said Dan Greenstein, who took over as system chancellor last fall. “They're as acute, more acute than they are, really, pretty much anywhere, so a lot of folks are watching and there's a lot of interest in what we're doing because win, lose or draw, there's going to be a lot of lessons learned."

Enrollment growth, Greenstein suggested, could come from serving adults who need to retrain or want to upgrade their skills in a competitive economy.

Pennsylvania's 14-university system, one of the nation's largest by enrollment, is at a disadvantage with many campuses in relatively rural areas trying to compete with urban powerhouses such as Temple University or the University of Pittsburgh, or Penn State and its satellite campuses.

Greenstein freely acknowledged that Pennsylvania has an overcapacity in higher education. Still, Greenstein rejected the much-discussed idea of closing one of the 14 universities. Rather, he said he hopes to overhaul the system into one where the universities share administrative resources, avoid duplication in offerings and provide courses more neatly aligned to demand.

The system is bracing for a continued demographic crunch, as the number of Pennsylvania's high school graduates is projected to keep falling. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's state support, at 27 percent of the system's budget, is about half the proportion of the national average for state schools, the system said.

Greenstein fielded questions from a number of skeptical lawmakers. One of them, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, told Greenstein that lawmakers have “lost faith" in the system.

The system was created for poorer and middle-class families, but it hasn't lived up to that, Saylor said.

“In many cases, you can go to other schools at a cheaper cost than you can to our state PASSHE system, and we have to get back to that if we want the system to survive," Saylor said.

A full year's tuition is $7,716, which the system bills as the lowest among all four-year colleges and universities in the state, and less than half that charged by most others.

The system had asked for an increase of almost $38 million, or 8 percent, which Greenstein had called a “cost to carry" request. Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed an increase of $7 million, or 1.5 percent, to $475 million, which would leave the system receiving less than it did in the 2006-07 school year.

Wolf, meanwhile, proposed a $50 million increase for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which gives voucher-like grants to students to help pay for tuition at about 90 qualified private colleges and universities in Pennsylvania.

Filling the system's budget gaps with tuition increase carries hazards.

Greenstein warned that the system is close to hitting the tuition ceiling for its core group of students, saying enrollment from families with income under $110,000 has dropped steeply.

Rather, Greenstein suggested that the system's board consider raising tuition for higher-demand disciplines.

Make text smaller Make text larger


Pool Rules


Cocaine, meth on rise in Pennsylvania's early warning areas
By Marc Levy
Methamphetamine and cocaine use are on the rise in Pennsylvania while prescription drug and heroin deaths are leveling off in some areas, data that appears to...

Read more »

'Angela's Ashes,' written in Milford, among books targeted for ban in Florida
Conservative groups in Florida want to ban from the state's public schools "Angela's Ashes," a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir written by the late Frank McCourt while he...
Read more »

Dispositions in Pike County Court
Pike County District Attorney Raymond J. Tonkin announced that the following criminal sentences were issued on March 14 by Pike County Court of Common Pleas President Judge...
Read more »

Why meritocracy is a myth in college admissions
The most damaging myth in American higher education is that college admissions is about merit, and that merit is about striving for — and earning — academic...
Read more »


Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Community Newspapers


St. Patrick's Parade coming to Stroudsburg
  • Mar 16, 2019
Letters to the Editor
Why meritocracy is a myth in college admissions
  • Mar 18, 2019


Weather in Milford, PA