Studies of PASSHE could have wide implications here

Separate studies into how the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) operates and what cost-savings can be found amid dropping enrollments could have significant implications for our own Lock Haven University.

The PASSHE board has hired the nonprofit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) of Boulder, Colo., for a maximum cost of $400,000, to assess the system and its 14 state-run universities, including Lock Haven.

The state Senate this week ordered a similar study that tasks the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to finalize a review by Dec. 1.

Combined enrollment at the 14 schools — Lock Haven, Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities — has dropped by 12 percent to nearly 105,000 since peaking in 2010.

As a result, some things have to give.

The already deficit-ridden state government cannot afford to give the state system the additional $61 million it is requesting to maintain programs and facilities.

At the same time, PASSHE says it’s operating on state funding levels that mirror 1999.

Whether two studies are needed is another question, though state Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill County, who sponsored the resolution calling for the Senate study, said he considers it necessary to do an outside study of the system because “there are always some concerns when a system studies itself as to how independent, no matter how hard they try, their study may be.”

In its nearly 50 years of studying higher education, the nonprofit NCHEMS has recommended public universities closing or merging in other states due to falling enrollment, rising costs, reduced state funding and duplication of services and degree programs, the nonprofit’s vice president Patrick Kelly told The (Allentown) Morning Call newspaper (www.mcall.com) this week. But politics, he said, often trumps recommendations and schools stay open.

“The reality is the mergers, consolidations and closings rarely happen,” Kelly told the newspaper.

We don’t profess to have a crystal ball, but we can speculate that this era of higher education in Pennsylvania is seeing some rare trends.

We’ll also go out on a limb and say these studies will likely come back recommending a consolidation of some schools.

That’s happening in other states.

Those state universities that survive will be the most robust in terms of enrollment and financial strength.

We count LHU among the latter, even in the face of its enrollment dropping a double-digit percentage since 2010. (Nearly all of the PASSHE schools have seen some enrollment decline.)

PASSHE’s problems are not exclusive.

Many colleges in Pennsylvania are laboring as the state’s overall population ages and shrinks.

The state universities offer 2,300 degree and certificate programs in more than 530 academic areas, and have a collective operating budget of $1.6 billion, 28 percent of which comes from tax dollars and the rest from student tuition and fees.

If you bleed Crimson & White, and/or if you want to see the community of Lock Haven and Clinton County maintain an institution of higher education that contributes mightily to the economy and to the quality of life here, you’d better engage in these two studies to voice your opinions.

The NCHEMS study is to be concluded this summer.

COMMENTS