As more and more data become available, the need for reform of the State System of Higher Education is becoming clearer. The 14 state-run universities have lost 12 percent of their enrollment since 2010, and bold actions are needed to restructure or reimagine this system.
This week new information was released about the retention of students after they enroll as freshmen. Since many students come from low-income families where few, if any, members have ever attended college, they have difficulty in persisting after matriculation. These data teach us that enrollment is not the only measure of an institution’s health. The retention rates for students require close study as well.
Systemwide, only 78 percent of full-time freshmen continue into their sophomore year. In other words, the system is losing nearly one-quarter of its students after one year of study. The retention rates for individual campuses range from 44 percent at Cheyney University to 88 percent at West Chester. The reasons for leaving vary from financial problems to lack of academic preparation to a change of career direction. There may also be factors that are within the control of the institutions.
To its credit, the system is not waiting for legislators or others to take action. Last week it hired a Colorado consulting group, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, to propose changes for the future of the universities.
With change in the air, individual institutions are also taking action to ensure their viability. For example, California University will emphasize coursework in science and technology. A task force was named to decide a specific focus for the program at Cheyney. Clarion University will rename its Venango College as the College of Health and Human Services, a reflection of the professional programs on offer — in-demand fields such as nursing, rehabilitation and health and sport sciences. We are encouraged by this development of niches.
While many states have a system of community colleges that covers every county, Pennsylvania has only 14 such colleges. Vast areas of the state have no access to two-year institutions. If the consultants find that some State System schools are not viable in their current form, one alternative would be to turn those four-year schools into community colleges.