State System of Higher Education could give more power to colleges

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The State System of Higher Education is poised to give some additional authority to its 14 member universities as a hearing is delayed on controversial legislation that would let the financially strongest of those schools secede.

The system's board of governors, set to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Harrisburg, plans to vote on a proposal giving those schools expanded authority to create new minors and certificate programs without prior approval from the chancellor, system spokesman Kenn Marshall said.

In addition, the board will weigh a measure ensuring those universities have additional input into the search for campus presidents, though the final hiring decision by statute would remain with the system.

The State System's board already has granted campuses new price flexibility, approving pilot programs in January that would enable several campuses to modify tuition rates for some programs in response to market demand.

Mr. Marshall said the changes proposed for next week are not a result of Senate Bill 1275, which was introduced last month by sponsors who contend the system has too much authority and makes decisions too slowly to encourage needed campus growth.

"The agenda items were planned long before the legislation was introduced," he said. "Are these issues that have been raised? Yes. But are the [actions] in response to the legislation? No."

The bill would let universities with more than 7,000 students leave the system and become state-related universities like Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh. Before leaving, they would have to pay off land and buildings and demonstrate financial vitality.

The bill's prime sponsor is state Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, a member of the council of trustees at West Chester University, one of only two system schools with growing enrollment.

The bill has resonated with some lawmakers and others who assert that the State System, with its shrinking enrollment and sharply reduced state funding, must adapt more rapidly or face financial calamity.

But the bill also has been roundly criticized by other lawmakers and groups that agree with system chancellor Frank Brogan that defections from Pennsylvania's most affordable tier of public universities would drive up tuition prices and weaken schools that remain.

A hearing on the bill tentatively was to be held next Tuesday before the senate Education Committee. But the senator's office and committee staff confirmed Wednesday that it will not take place and a new date has not been set.

Fran Cleaver, counsel to Mr. Tomlinson, said she believes there is considerable interest and that "the bill could go all the way," though apparently not as is.

"I don't think the bill will emerge from committee in its present form," she said. "It was intended to get people talking."

The chancellor and Mr. Tomlinson met Tuesday at the senator's request, Mr. Marshall said.

He said the meeting yielded "excellent discussions."

The 112,000-student system includes California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.

The price pilot programs approved in January included one that will enable Edinboro to begin charging out-of-state students tuition rates close to what Pennsylvanians pay, in hopes of offsetting an enrollment drop of 18 percent since 2010.

Three more price pilots are to go before the board next week, including one enabling full-time undergraduates at Clarion University to pay per-credit rather than the traditional approach of charging a flat rate to those taking 12 to 18 credits.

The per-credit price would be modified so that those students overall would not pay more than they currently do, but instead would gain greater payment flexibility that could help reduce the numbers who leave campus for financial reasons, system officials said. Those losses are seen as one contributor to an overall 17 percent enrollment loss at Clarion since 2010.

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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