Pink slips may await some Pennsylvania public universities
HARRISBURG, Pa. — In the coming months, some of the schools in Pennsylvania’s 14-university system of higher education may get pink slips.
Dropping post-recession enrollments, financial struggles at some system schools and unwillingness by the state to come to the rescue is driving an exploration that could result in recommendations that some of the schools shut their doors.
Such closings are relatively unheard of among state university systems, although they may become more common amid dropping higher education enrollments nationwide and state aid languishing below pre-recession levels.
In Pennsylvania, closing universities has the potential to become a hot issue. The universities date back more than a century, drive local economies and carry a mission to provide low-cost education.
“A lot of that town is based on that school being there,” Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, said of struggling Clarion University during a two-hour Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday with state system officials. “What if you close Clarion? Everything revolves around that campus.”
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education officials plan in the coming weeks to hire a consultant to give recommendations that could include consolidating degree programs, revamping marketing and shuttering schools.
Such struggles are being felt across the Rust Belt and Northeast, said Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, but also in Kansas, where dropping enrollments are spurring a search for ways to get more high school graduates to stay in-state. In Georgia, the state university system is pursuing a five-year plan to merge eight public colleges into four following cuts in state aid.
Pennsylvania’s university system is suffering from dropping in-state high school graduations, a result of fewer school-age youth, and similarly deep cuts in state aid over the past eight years. The system is also 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.
Through hours of testimony before the House and Senate appropriations committees Thursday, system Chancellor Frank Brogan told lawmakers that the network of schools must undergo changes to improve its long-term viability and financial stability.
That could put a target on the backs of some of Pennsylvania’s more rural and smaller universities where enrollments are dropping the most, including Mansfield, Edinboro and Clarion, as well as the nation’s first historically black college, Cheyney University, in suburban Philadelphia.
Overall, the system’s enrollment is down 5 percent over the last decade to 104,000, but 12 percent since enrollment peaked in 2010. Only West Chester University in growing Chester County has seen rising enrollment since the peak, with an eye-popping 17 percent growth. Cheyney has lost more than half its student body, Mansfield has lost more than one-third and Clarion and Edinboro weren’t far behind.
In several years since then, state aid was down as much as 20 percent from its 2008-09 peak, and remains at 1999 levels. It is a dramatic change for a system that began in 1983 with the state footing two-thirds of the university budgets. Now, the state provides a quarter of university budgets, with the rest from tuition and fees. In the last eight years alone, the average cost to attend a system school has risen 50 percent, according to an analysis of system figures.
Republican lawmakers asked pointed questions Thursday about the systems’ costs of employee salaries and benefits. Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, suggested that hiring a consultant was simply delaying tough decisions about the size of the system.
“I think you know what needs to be done,” Yaw told Brogan, who previously served as chancellor of the State University System of Florida.
Still, Democrats defended the mission of the schools as too important to downsize, and Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, blamed the system’s struggles on stingy state budgeting.
“When we stop investing the money, the students don’t come,” Hughes told Brogan. “When we invest the money, students attend.”
Afterward, the president of the state universities’ faculty union, Ken Mash, warned that the state risks abandoning the mission of boosting the upward mobility of Pennsylvanians of modest means.
“If we’re talking about closing them down or consolidating, what harm are we doing to students?” Mash asked. “Why are we treating this generation differently than the ones that came before?”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/marc-levy.