Colleges that compete: The state universities get some needed flexibility

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Variety long has been the hallmark of the State System of Higher Education, with its 14 campuses sprinkled across Pennsylvania, from Edinboro in the northwest near Erie to Cheyney in the southeast near Philadelphia. It only makes sense that recruiting students to each of the autonomous schools has to differ from place to place.

The system’s board of governors acknowledged that fact last week when it approved six pilot programs that mean campus administrators will be able to charge slightly different rates for different programs.

The biggest change was for the 7,100-student Edinboro University, which has suffered an 18 percent loss in enrollment since 2010. There, the rate for out-of-state residents who wish to attend will be just $331 more than what Pennsylvanians pay, a sharp distinction from today. A student from nearby New York or Ohio who is paying tuition of $9,933 now instead will pay $6,953.

Ohio long has been able to draw Pennsylvanians across the border with similar discounts at some of its state campuses, and Edinboro’s new program will take away that competitive advantage. Edinboro President Julie Wollman said the change won’t mean the exclusion of qualified Pennsylvania applicants. Unfortunately, Edinboro’s problem is too many empty seats, and this solution could help to fill them.

The flexibility that was approved by the board last week means active duty military personnel will get a price break at California University of Pennsylvania, while West Chester students who attend its Philadelphia Center City campus will be eligible for a 10 percent tuition discount.

On other campuses, students who are enrolled in the most popular programs could face higher charges; these include nursing programs at Clarion, Edinboro and East Stroudsburg universities and a new fee for Clarion’s communication and speech disorders program.

The state system will try these programs on for size and, if they are successful, they could be extended to more of its campuses.

Competitive pricing, along with competitive programming, could go a long way to making the state system campuses more cost-effective and more functional. That would be good news for the Pennsylvanians whose tax dollars support them.

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