Change in wind for Pa. college system

Legislators’ plan may allow growing schools to secede

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Picture a state university with a fast-growing student population.

That's hard to do across most of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities, where enrollments since 2010 are down by 6 percent on average and by nearly 20 percent at some individual campuses, including those in Western Pennsylvania.

But at West Chester University, a suburban Philadelphia campus that has seen a 9 percent enrollment gain in those years, the image applies.

And to some, it is the starkest illustration of a university in a growing part of the state that would be even more prosperous but for the State System of Higher Education -- which, they contend, sets policies that prop up schools with weaker enrollments while slowing needed expansion elsewhere.

State legislation to address those complaints may be on the way, including a provision letting stronger schools secede.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said he and Republican Sen. Robert Tomlinson of Bucks County hope in the next couple weeks to unveil legislation that would grant schools like West Chester greater autonomy within the State System or allow those schools to perhaps become a state-related institution like the University of Pittsburgh and Temple, Lincoln and Penn State universities.

"Either it would allow a State System institution that can take care of itself and prosper to become a state-related institution, or you would create a tiered system, giving increased freedom to those institutions that are growing to make decisions without as many permissions," he said.

Complaints about the system's bureaucracy have arisen over the years often as idle campus talk. But the matter appears poised to spill into the Legislature as the State System faces arguably the worst financial stress in its three-decade history.

Mr. Dinniman said the State System no longer can fill its 14 universities, has a state appropriation slashed to 1990s levels and has fallen deeper into debt for construction on campuses with growing vacancy rates. Enrollment systemwide of 112,300 students this year is down from 2010's peak by 7,200 students -- equal to an entire campus.

"The only way currently that the system has for survival is to take money away from those institutions that are doing well, which is actually only West Chester and Bloomsburg universities, and [shift] it to institutions that are not in as good a shape," said Mr. Dinniman, citing enrollment gains at both schools.

"This is a house of cards," he added.

He said the 14 schools pay the State System fees for support, including computer services West Chester can provide itself. He said growing campuses would benefit from faster approval for high-demand academic programs, fewer state-appointees and more alumni on their trustee boards, and the ability to pursue construction outside the state Department of General Services.

Mr. Dinniman said the bill's prime sponsor will be Mr. Tomlinson, who did not return calls for comment.

Both legislators have ties to West Chester. Mr. Dinniman has taught there and represents a district that includes the campus; Mr. Tomlinson is on West Chester's council of trustees.

But Mr. Dinniman insisted this is not advocacy for West Chester but rather an attempt to force an overdue policy discussion of what the State System must do if birth rates and high school graduate numbers, especially in Western Pennsylvania, remain depressed. He said there are workable models other than those likely to be in the legislation but that one approach -- the satus quo -- no longer works.

"We know at the very least we are going to have to right-size some institutions," he said.

State System Chancellor Frank Brogan declined to comment specifically on the potential legislation but said he hopes any effort champions quality and affordability.

"The State System is not an office in Harrisburg; rather, it is 14 universities that are shaping the future of the commonwealth," he said in a statement.

The system and its board of governors already are adapting to Pennsylvania's changing landscape, he said.

For example, the board "in January approved a number of new degree programs and flexible tuition plans -- developed by the campuses themselves -- to help address local needs," he said. The board "is also exploring how it can achieve a better balance between system coordination and more local decision-making."

Tensions within public university systems have arisen before elsewhere in the nation. The University of Wisconsin at Madison weighed leaving its system but ultimately did not, said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He said Oregon's biggest public universities recently gained more autonomy.

West Chester president Greg R. Weisenstein did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday. Campus spokeswoman Pam Sheridan also did not return messages.

In recent weeks, the president and other campus leaders have discussed the matter and its potential implications for the campus, said Lisa Millhous, a professor and president of West Chester's chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.

Faculty views are mixed, she said, with questions ranging from whether the legislation will be introduced to what greater autonomy would mean for West Chester and the public.

Would the school have more say over tuition levels? Could faculty there negotiate a contract better reflecting Greater Philadelphia's higher cost of living? And could a West Chester no longer in the system make a go of it after paying off property and other obligations to the state?

"If it's going to become as expensive to go to West Chester as it would be a state-related university, then what's available to working-class families?" Ms. Millhous said.


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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