For now, it's just one campus.
But if Clarion University succeeds in a pricing experiment that it hopes to begin in fall 2015, other state-owned universities across Pennsylvania may ask themselves -- as Clarion did -- whether it's time to drop a pricing standard as old as the State System of Higher Education itself: the flat tuition rate for full-time undergraduates.
If Clarion opts to proceed, its pilot program to charge all undergraduates per credit would last no more than two years, and it's impossible to predict if it would be renewed beyond that or if other campuses would see enough benefit to do the same, system spokesman Kenn Marshall said.
But it's the sort of possibilities that are opening up as the 14 state-owned universities gain greater flexibility to deviate from the system's standard pricing. Clarion and two other pilot programs Thursday became the latest to be approved by the State System's board of governors.
"I think the others would at least look at it. Whether they would do it very much depends on each individual university's make-up," said Mr. Marshall, when asked if other schools might seek the same permission Clarion did.
The decisions would likely turn on the mix of students at those campuses and what is learned, favorable or otherwise, about Clarion's experience. "That's the intent of all of these pilot programs," Mr. Marshall said.
As set by the system's board, base undergraduate tuition this year across the State System is $3,311 a semester for full-time students -- those taking 12 to 18 credits. The per-credit rate for part-time students is $276.
At Clarion, market research has found students have a harder time footing their bills, and those opting to leave school have contributed to a 17 percent enrollment drop since 2010, system officials said. The pilot program would be part of a larger effort to align charges with instruction received by Clarion students, including working adults.
To meet Clarion's goal that the pilot neither boost nor cut the campus' overall tuition income, the per-credit rate there would be lowered -- perhaps to $250 based on the current mix of student course load, system officials said.
Some of the university's nearly 6,100 students would pay less than they do now. Others would pay more.
For instance, a student taking12 credits at $250 each would pay $3,000 in total, or $311 less than the current flat semester rate. But students taking 18 credits would pay $4,500, or $1,189 more than now, based on system data.
David Love, a Clarion spokesman, said no final decisions have been made on either the per-credit price or the pilot itself.
"We now have the opportunity to take a deeper look at this and see how it would impact the particular types of students we want to attract and think we could serve well," he said.
If not satisfied by the potential benefit to campus, he added, "We would not move in that direction."
The pilot programs aren't the only area of new flexibility that universities across the 112,000-student system are receiving to address enrollment and financial strains.
The system's board Thursday also gave universities greater autonomy to create minors and certificate programs. And it voted to give local universities a greater role in vetting prospective campus presidents.
Both moves are intended to defuse campus criticisms that the system is not responsive to the needs of individual universities.
In January, the board approved its first pilot programs for pricing, giving several campuses permission to cut prices for some programs to help boost enrollment and to adjust prices upward for others, particularly in certain science and technology programs considered high demand and expensive to deliver.
In addition to the Clarion pilot, the board Thursday approved two at Millersville, including one allowing program-specific instructional fees to be added to certain science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
Steve Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, cautioned the board at its meeting in Harrisburg to guard against excessive tuition increases in the those disciplines.
"We want to be careful not to drive undergraduates away from these majors due to the price tag," he said.
Board member Ron Henry, chairman of its finance committee, offered assurance later in the meeting that the system's intent is that "students not be squeezed out of programs."
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.