For years, Edinboro University recruiters watched ruefully from a part of Pennsylvania hit hard by population loss as high school graduates defected to Ohio and elsewhere for sharply discounted tuition, sometimes less than prices in their own state.
Efforts by Edinboro to attract out-of-staters were hampered by rules requiring it and Pennsylvania's 13 other state-owned universities to charge nonresident students thousands of dollars more to attend.
But a vote Thursday by the State System of Higher Education's board of governors to let Edinboro slash its out-of-state tuition to within a few hundred dollars of what Pennsylvanians pay could begin leveling the playing field, school president Julie Wollman said.
The experiment is already being watched by other border campuses within the State System that have faced enrollment losses since 2010, due in part to declining numbers of Pennsylvania high school graduates.
"If it works, and I think it will, I believe other schools will be very interested in this," said Ms. Wollman, whose 7,100-student university has lost 18 percent of its enrollment since 2010.
The move is part of a broader State System decision to let individual universities begin modifying tuition and related fees up or down depending on demand and on what it costs to deliver instruction in some majors.
Half a dozen pilot programs approved for five campuses could be in effect this fall. They include new fees for high-demand, high-cost nursing programs at Clarion, Edinboro and East Stroudsburg universities as well as a course-specific fee that will be instituted within Clarion's communication and speech disorders program.
Thursday's vote also means California University of Pennsylvania will give a price break to active duty military personnel enrolled online. West Chester students at the Center City campus in Philadelphia will receive a 10 percent tuition cut.
Still more proposals may follow. State System chancellor Frank Brogan, a proponent of the idea, called Thursday's vote "a major potential sea change" for a system that has traditionally set one tuition regardless of major.
Targeted higher fees mean new revenue at a time when the 112,000-student system is living with 18 percent less state aid than a few years ago. But for schools with big enrollment drops, new flexibility to lower prices across borders could be just as enticing.
That is the case at Edinboro, which can now charge nonresidents 105 percent of in-state tuition, or $6,953 a year.
The school, near Erie, is about 20 miles from Ohio and New York. Edinboro charges nonresidents $9,933 in tuition, 150 percent of Pennsylvania's in-state rate of $6,622. Prior to Thursday's vote, that percentage was the best Edinboro could offer out of staters, and yet it was about $5,000 more than what New Yorkers and Ohioans pay in their own states.
At the same time, schools elsewhere were wooing students away with reduced rates.
In fact, say Edinboro officials, Youngstown State University offers students in 18 Pennsylvania counties, including those surrounding Edinboro, published tuition and fees of $8,139 a year -- an amount nearly $710 less than Edinboro's in-state tuition and fees of $8,849 a year.
Some expressed reservations about some or all of the State System's pricing moves.
Steve Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, urged the board to tread lightly in upping fees. "We're supposed to be the affordable option in the commonwealth," he said.
Board leaders and Mr. Brogan say they will watch closely to see if price cuts yield sufficiently more students and if price hikes drive them away.
Edinboro needs to boost its 171 out-of-state freshmen, most from New York and Ohio, by 71 to break even. Ms Wollman said she believes that can be met or exceeded, noting schools in target states that have higher in-state tuition than what Edinboro's new out-of-state rate will be.
She also assured board members that Pennsylvanians would not be displaced by any rush of nonresidents.
Alluding to empty seats on campus now, she said: "We would love to have that problem, to think we would have to worry about that."
Also Thursday, the board voted to allow Indiana University of Pennsylvania to buy back the $34 million in bond debt that helped it finish the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
The school will tap reserves for the buyback, hoping to avoid more than $18 million in interest payments beyond the remaining bond principal that have become an annual drag on the university's education and general budget.
The board also approved a systemwide strategic plan setting goals through 2020, including a higher number of degrees and certificates awarded yearly, increasing working adult students and transfers and promoting more diversity and better graduation rates.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977. Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published January 23, 2014 11:39 AM