Fortify the system: Keep the state-owned universities together

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A proposal from two state lawmakers that could allow successful universities to secede from the State System of Higher Education is a flawed notion that should be stopped before it gets going.

Two senators, Democrat Andy Dinniman from Chester and Republican Robert Tomlinson from Bucks County, plan to offer legislation that would give more autonomy to the state-owned universities that are bucking the trend by growing. That could eventually allow the schools to leave the unified state system and take on state-related status like the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University.

Both senators have links to West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia; Mr. Dinniman has taught there and Mr. Tomlinson sits on the council of trustees. Unlike the state system as a whole, where enrollment has dropped by 6 percent since 2010, the number of students at West Chester has grown by 9 percent.

That’s good, but Mr. Dinniman and Mr. Tomlinson have gone too far. Changing the status of a campus to state-related would be challenging at best and, more likely, insurmountable.

Pennsylvania taxpayers have significant investments in the 14 system campuses — the state owns them. Would the state be compensated for the grounds, buildings, staff training and institutional elements it has built up over decades? Where could that money come from? How much higher would tuition have to be?

If the most successful campuses are allowed to leave, what incentive would there be for the state to retain only its under-performers? It’s easy to see the state system’s mission of offering low-cost college educations to Pennsylvanians unraveling.

Another option raised by the senators is creation of a tiered system in which some campuses would have more freedom to make decisions. Such legislation seems unnecessary since the system’s new chancellor already is taking smart steps in that direction.

Frank Brogan said from the beginning of his tenure on Oct. 1 that cuts and changes in programs are necessary, new offerings must match the economic and employment needs of Pennsylvania and it doesn’t make sense for the state to have 14 identical operations.

In response, the system’s board of governors approved six pilot programs that gave some campuses more latitude, including the ability to give tuition discounts to out-of-state students, charge different rates for some majors and, in West Chester’s case, give a 10 percent discount to students who attend its Philadelphia Center City campus.

Those are improvements worth pursuing, but they’re a long way from permitting universities to leave the system.

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