The largest provider of higher education in the Commonwealth could benefit from mergers or consolidation, according to a new state-commissioned report.
Following a Senate resolution passed in 2017, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee in November contracted with the RAND Corp. to study issues plaguing the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education and propose potential long-term solutions.
The conclusion: To stop the bleed of declining enrollment, the state system should consider five options.
The most significant include:
- Reducing the number of state-owned universities perhaps in half by merging and consolidating.
- Merging weaker universities with stronger ones and converting the remaining institutions to state-related status.
- Placing the state system under the management of a large, state-related university such as Penn State or Pittsburgh.
The report did not recommend any school closures, nor did it cite any university by name.
Among the report’s critics was interim Chancellor Karen Whitney, who during a visit to Millersville University on Thursday called the suggestions listed in the report “ambiguous” and “irresponsible.”
“It would be relatively cheap and cowardly to close and merge,” Whitney said. “Merger wasn’t even in my vocabulary before … the report.”
The report states that only through legislation could any merger take place.
PSSHE officials last year conducted a system review that was capped by a report from the National Center of Higher Education Management Systems assessing the nearly 35-year-old system’s viability.
Out of nine recommendations from NCHEMS, none included consolidation, closures or the removal of any university from the state system.
The Board of Governors has since initiated a system redesign and created task forces tasked with trimming outdated policies that its members say hinder student success.
Changes made internally — especially consolidation — won’t solve all the system’s problems, according to Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
Commenting on the RAND report, Mash said in a statement that “Pennsylvania will need a highly educated citizenry, and closing down opportunities goes in the opposite direction.”
Pleading for more funds
Mash said the RAND report should have suggested more funding so the state system can “truly deliver on (its) legislatively mandated mission to provide a high-quality, affordable education for working-class Pennsylvanians.”
Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2018-19 budget proposal in February included $468.1 million for the state system. That’s $15 million, or 3.3 percent, more than this year, but still about $9 million less than the appropriation from 2008-09, when education funding began to plummet due to the recession.
Baseline tuition throughout the state system, in turn, has increased by nearly 40 percent, from $5,358 in 2008-9 to $7,492 in 2017-18.
Enrollment during that period has declined 9.1 percent, from 112,597 to 102,301 students. Only West Chester University has increased enrollment, while Slippery Rock, Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg and Millersville have experienced only minimal decreases.
Millersville President John Anderson said in a statement that the RAND report opens “many questions” about the state system’s future.
“At Millersville University,” Anderson said, “we are committed to what really matters to students and their families — affordability and access to high-quality education with relevant academic programs.”