State System exit plan outlined by Pa. senators

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HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania senators on Tuesday explained how they propose to allow high-performing universities to exit state ownership, while both the State System of Higher Education and the faculty union expressed concern.

Universities meeting size and financial qualifications could opt to buy their land and buildings over 30 years, state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks and a trustee of West Chester University, and Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester and a former professor at the university, said at a Capitol news conference. Of the 14 universities in the State System, only West Chester and Bloomsburg have not lost enrollment since 2010.

Mr. Tomlinson and Mr. Dinniman -- who were joined by Sens. Richard Alloway, R-Adams, Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, and Pat Vance, R-Cumberland -- said their proposal would allow greater flexibility for qualified universities while directing money back into the system to help those schools that remain.

"Over the years what's happened is power has collected in Harrisburg and power has been taken away from your local schools to run their institutions," Mr. Tomlinson said. "I would like to try to put some of that back, and I'd also like to put some money back and get some autonomy in my local school."

The legislation would create a path from state ownership for universities with more than 7,000 students that have three years of an "unqualified audit opinion" and the means to buy their property from the state. The university would be required to continue paying the employer share of pension obligations.

Nine State System universities have enrollments of more than 7,000, including Slippery Rock University, California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Under the proposal, a university that left state ownership would continue to receive at least the state funding it got in the year before trustees approved the transfer. Collective bargaining agreements would remain in force for the term of the contracts.

The university would have up to 30 years to pay the state for the depreciated value of state-owned land and buildings. Seventy percent of the repaid funds would be distributed to the state system, while the university would receive 30 percent back to provide financial aid for Pennsylvania residents.

The heads of the State System of Higher Education and the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties both said the proposal could increase tuition costs. Pennsylvania residents pay $6,622 in tuition for one year at State System schools, while the base yearly tuition at the University of Pittsburgh, a state-related university, is $16,240.

"A primary concern is that for any university that leaves the State System, tuition and fees will likely go up, as was confirmed in the press conference today," State System chancellor Frank T. Brogan said in a statement. "This would create an added burden for students and their families. Every university that leaves the State System could close another door to affordable, quality public higher education.

"Becoming a state-related will come with skyrocketing tuition," APSCUF president Steve Hicks said in a statement, noting that the state-owned universities have lost funding. "This proposal further cuts into the system to subsidize universities leaving and raising tuition. [State System] universities should continue to give first-generation and working-class students a shot at a college degree."

Mr. Tomlinson said he believes the proposal would instead keep tuition low.

Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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