All options on table for State System, even mergers or closures
January 26, 2017 10:39 AM
Cal U is one of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even as they helped defeat legislation that would have let prosperous member campuses defect, leaders of Pennsylvania’s state university system warned in 2014 that falling enrollment and budgetary woes eventually might force reordering of the 14 schools.
Three years later, that future apparently has arrived.
An organizational review of the State System of Higher Education and its member universities that enroll 105,000 students is now underway and will consider every possibility, including merging or closing institutions, system chancellor Frank Brogan said.
He made the observation Thursday during a State-of-the-System speech to a breakfast audience in Harrisburg. In doing so, he added Pennsylvania to a growing list of states from Georgia to Vermont to Oregon where budgetary and enrollment troubles have forced rethinking of the way public systems are structured.
Mr. Brogan set no timetable for the "strategic review," which started several months ago, nor did he identify specific organizational changes or potential closures. But he and system board chair Cynthia Shapira — who also delivered remarks — said the review would be all-encompassing and would likely lead to hard decisions this year.
"Every bit of this system — as great as it's been over the years — has to be examined," Mr. Brogan said. "From how we operate the office of the chancellor to how we're organized as a system ... no preconceptions and no limits."
The current approach as to how system officials operate and how the system is organized "is unsustainable."
Mr. Brogan pointed to the system's contribution to Pennsylvania’s economy and to efforts at keeping the 14 schools affordable and responsive to the changing needs of students and employers. He and Ms. Shapira credited Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly for two consecutive increases in state support.
Nevertheless, challenges are piling up for a system whose state appropriation is at 1999 levels, $60 million less than before the 2008 recession, they said. The state paid for 63 percent of operations when the State System debuted in 1983, a share now down to 27 percent.
Exacerbating matters this fall was a sixth consecutive yearly enrollment loss. Enrollment that totaled nearly 120,000 students in 2010 is down by 14,462 students or 12 percent, reducing the system's headcount to a level not seen since 2003. Some individual campuses have seen losses at or above 30 percent.
Mr. Brogan and Ms. Shapira said Pennsylvania is not unique.
"States are wrestling with the same issues we are, leading to the reorganization of public university systems in many states around the country — including the merger or even closure of institutions," he said.
"Is that where we are headed? Well, that's a question I can't answer today, nor by the way, can anyone else," he added. "But it is a question we have to ask — and we have to answer — this year, not in the future.''
Mr. Brogan said efforts to align the universities' offerings to student and workforce needs have led the State System schools to add 200 new minors, concentrations or certificates in recent years. But those schools that are facing rising costs have also discontinued 70 majors.
States, including Georgia and Vermont, already have seen mergers, and Oregon is exploring similar moves, said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. They are high-stakes moves, educationally and politically.
“If you want to make a lot of enemies in a fairly short time, propose merging college campuses,” he said.
State System officials said they will hire a consultant to provide research support and seek input from students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders.
"Until you actually start talking about specific things, it’s very hard to have an opinion about it,” said Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
Cheyney University, a historically black institution, is generally seen as being in the toughest financial spot, its operations supported in part by millions of dollars in loans from the State System.
In October 2015, state Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga, and a board member, said it's no secret that Cheyney is in financial distress, but finances at other schools are deteriorating, too.
He said his understanding was that Mansfield leaders "were coming close to running out of reserves." He said California University of Pennsylvania and Clarion University, among others, also bear watching. "There are several other universities that are going to be running through their reserves very soon," he said at the time.
Though Cheyney mustered in increase of 35 students this year, its enrollment has dropped by 53 percent since 2010. Enrollment over the past six years is off by 35 percent at Mansfield; by 29 percent at Clarion and Edinboro universities; by 23 percent at Lock Haven University; by 21 percent at Kutztown University and by 20 percent at Cal U.
The State System board, meeting Thursday, voted to give itself authority to approve case-by-case proposals from member schools to permanently implement alternative tuition and fee polices.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.
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