Take two studies of PASSHE and find common ground

wo studies of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and thousands of dollars later and what do we know?

The state system is still in need of change so that many of its 14-member universities can right their ships as enrollments dip, mirroring a trend nationwide.

To wit: PASSHE commissioned a study last year by National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to gain recommendations on how to strengthen the system and its schools.

Never to be out-maneuvered, the Legislature commissioned its own study, by Rand Corp., which came out last week.

Combined, the two studies cost near $650,000.

PASSHE schools include our own Lock Haven, plus Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester Universities of Pennsylvania (and branch campuses). The universities also operate branch campuses.

Cheyney is in the most difficult situation financially. Some of the rural schools also are facing financial challenges.

Many have or are cutting programs with low enrollment, and reducing staff.

Using a formula assessing performance in various areas, Lock Haven has been rated by PASSHE as being in a very strong position financially.

As FYI, here is more information from the studies.

Key findings in

both studies:

5 PASSHE enrollment will continue to drop in most of Pennsylvania, thus so will enrollment in most state schools. Students are paying a greater share of costs because state appropriations are limited and have declined. Opportunities to change are hindered by state regulations, inflexible faculty labor relations, and governance that is reportedly bureaucratic and places politics above system needs.

5 System enrollment has declined 13 percent between 2010 and 2016. As of 2016, 11 of the 14 State System universities are operating in deficit (although some of this effect may stem from 2015 changes in accounting rules for retiree pensions). Given the projected decline of the state’s youth population, student costs could continue to rise, while services may continue to be curtailed or downsized.

The Rand

study options:

5 Option 1 is to keep the broad state system structure with improvements. It upgrades the existing system by modifying the governance structure to reallocate authority across the various system levels and freeing institutions from some state requirements.

5 Option 2 makes the changes in Option 1 and also consolidates the current 14 universities into a smaller number — perhaps five to eight — by merging state system universities in each region of the state and including at least one fiscally viable university in each merger.

5 Option 3 would eliminate the state system structure and convert the universities to state-related status. This option would be applied to the stronger universities or to weaker universities that could be merged with stronger ones prior to independence.

5 Option 4 places the state system and all its institutions under the management of a large state-related university, building on their strong performance, possibly for a defined period of time such as 10 years.

5 Option 5 merges the state system universities into one or more of the state-related universities as branch campuses.

Rand includes this note with these options: Several of these options could affect the missions of the universities, accessibility and costs for students, and the sovereign immunity that currently protects the State System from lawsuits.

Rand’s further

recommendations:

5 Understand the seriousness of the challenges and plan for major changes. Do not seek to close universities, but increase flexibility and responsiveness through one or more of the five options. Option 1 is unlikely to address long-term challenges; Options 2 to 5 may be more difficult to implement, but they are more likely to strengthen financially weak institutions and match staff size to enrollment trends.

5 Seek to develop a new structure with state-related universities. Pursue either Option 4 or 5 if large, state-related universities are willing.

5 If a new structure with state-related universities is not feasible, pursue other options, starting with Option 2 or 3. If those cannot be implemented, pursue Option 1.

5 Do not establish a statewide coordinating body, unless it is needed to implement a specific option. Most of the options probably do not justify establishment of a new statewide higher education body.

NCHEMS findings:

5 NCHEMS did not recommend any of the 14 campuses be closed or merged, but it did have some harsh criticisms for how PASSHE is run and how it has negotiated and approved union contracts.

5 In its 54-page report, the agency recommended to “reconfigure institutions facing the most severe sustainability challenges as universities,” while also working to “retain their unique character and core programs,” and “leverage systemwide and regional resources to deliver programming and share administrative functions more efficiently.” How the PASSHE board defines “reconfigure institutions” remains to be seen.

5 Replace the current (PASSHE) board of governors with a board of regents made up of lay members, and clarify the distribution of authority among the board, the chancellor, university presidents and their councils of trustees.

5 NCHEMS criticizes PASSHE and the schools, saying “governance has not changed with the times,” and there is “ambiguity in allocation of … authority.”

5 The system has been approving collective bargaining agreements with faculty and staff “with no realistic plan to cover costs.”

5 There has been a lack of urgency to address fiscal problems before they reach a crisis,; the system is not exercising management responsibilities consistently, and there is inadequate support for campus leaders facing difficult problems.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution says, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.” The state Legislature is responsible for creating and maintaining that system.

Some argue that “public” does not mean “higher” education beyond K-12 public schools.

We say it does mean higher education.

If the Legislature eliminates the PASSHE administrative umbrella and overhead, each school will be on its own. Worth considering, as long as state funds are committed.

Indeed, the Legislature should guarantee “X” amount of funding annually for three years at a clip to help the schools better plan financially. The yearly uncertainty over funding exacerbates the schools’ challenges — similar to the yearly debacle over funding of public school districts.

There are no easy solutions.

The state schools attract a lot of first-generation students because they have reasonable tuition rates.

Pennsylvania needs strong, productive political leadership to work for change in the state system that would strengthen it.

We suggest Gov. Tom Wolf get the ball rolling, talking to GOP leaders in the General Assembly to find a path forward.

We cannot continue to just study the issues.

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