Public investment in higher education is at stake here

e say, rather emphatically, “no” to any proposal to dismantle the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education by allowing the larger of PSSHE’s 14 universities to secede.

It’s too drastic of a move without fully comprehending what could easily be a devastating impact on both access to and affordability of higher education in Pennsylvania.

Very often in this forum – amid the volatility of state funding of education in recent years – we’ve expressed our adamant belief that a priority investment of taxpayers’ money in Pennsylvania should go to education … its public schools and universities.

But that investment is waning, some argue by necessity, others say it is by political choice.

Reduced, changed or flat funding to public and higher education in Pennsylvania – however you want to argue it – in the past three or so years has resulted in:

~ The closing of public schools to match declines in enrollment, but also due to cost constraints.

~ Layoffs of teachers at public schools and state colleges through attrition, undercutting the quality of education.

~ Elimination of education programs at state universities due to enrollment trends and cost constraints.

~ Streamlining of administrative duties leading to job layoffs at state universities due to cost constraints.

~ Calls and requirements accountability for more accountability of teachers based on student test scores.

At the college level, all of these changes and trends have created a thick and dark cloud over higher education in Pennsylvania, a state that has always prided itself in having a large number of universities and colleges that provide an economic backbone to host communities, that work to prevent “brain drain,” and that provide hope for thousands of parents who want to see their kids “do better.”

Make no mistake, unless more funding is found, PSSHE, which also oversees Lock Haven University right here in Clinton County, is facing significant challenges.

But the mission of PASSHE is spelled out in ACT 188, which established the State System of Higher Education: Its purpose shall be to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.

PSSHE, we believe, is fulfilling that mission. And yes, some state-run universities are doing better than others.

But they are all working to transform themselves by reforming their offerings to match the needs of today’s job market while also cutting costs to keep their budgets balanced – and minimize tuition increases.

Republican state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson of Bucks County on Tuesday outlined a proposal in the Capitol to allow larger state-run universities to join the state-related schools, saying some of the institutions need more flexibility to cope with enrollment trends and financial pressures.

State-related universities include Penn State, Pitt, Lincoln and Temple.

Schools that leave the state system would have to pay back the value of their property over 30 years.

That could conceivably leave smaller PSSHE universities like Mansfield, Clarion and yes, Lock Haven, with even more financial challenges and fewer resources.

Location does have an impact on prospective students’ choice about where to go to college. That can and does mean the playing field among the 14 schools is not level, but at least if offers choice.

There is no endless stream of money to subsidize public education. Shrinking tax revenues – and now shrinking high school graduation classes (12 of the 14 schools saw enrollment declines last year) – means PSSHE and the state-related schools are facing a reality check.

PSSHE’s traditional one-size-fits-all approach does need reform, but not dismantling.

The 14 state-run universities compete with each other, with state-related schools and with private colleges and universities.

And while that’s not a bad thing, the powers-that-be must always recognize that providing easy access to and affordable higher education really, … REALLY is offering hope to our younger generations “to do better.”