LOCK HAVEN - Successful universities maintain a balance in all they do.
State universities like Lock Haven are expected to offer all things for all students, at least to some extent, and LHU is aware of that expectation.
It's difficult to meet it and keep one foot on the budget tightrope.
Yet, in this poor economic climate, Lock Haven University recently opened two new online master's programs, in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Sport Science.
The LHU administration talks about the importance of attracting students and keeping them until they graduate. Ultimately, its success is reflected in its students' success.
Budget pressures might be relieved by dropping a course of study, but the loss of that course could affect the balance. Is a course becoming less popular? Perhaps it is better in the long run to shore it up with more resources rather than abandon it. Then it can continue to be a part of what attracts students to Lock
The university might have simply dropped its football program when its record of lost games became nationally noteworthy. Instead, new coaching staff and a new emphasis seem to point to future success, and to cap off this past season, the Bald Eagle gridders won their first game in five years.
But LHU, like all universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, has to deal with out-of-balance funding. The current tilted funding system has slid more weight onto students and their tuition fees.
"A shift has occurred in the past five years," said LHU President Dr. Michael Fiorentino Jr., "with the majority of funding coming from student tuition and less from the Commonwealth."
The more affordable a university is, the more accessible it can be. And, as tuitions rise, state universities can seem less affordable, less accessible to potential students who may turn to other options.
This cycle puts the higher education system at risk.
A Governor's Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education was formed to seek ways to improve the system. The commission held 16 sessions across the state, meeting with business leaders, educators and others over the course of nine months. The result is about 20 recommendations, released in November, for the governor to take into consideration. Some of them address affordability.
According to Fiorentino, these recommendations attempt to maintain tuition levels and sweeten the funding mix so that a greater amount of a state university's budget comes from the Commonwealth.
The simplest way to accomplish that is to inject more state dollars. The commission recommends such an injection, but not directly. Rather, it suggests a "performance fund" of $256 million be made available to schools that control tuition and increase accessibility to under-represented groups.
Performance funding is nothing new to LHU and the 13 other state system universities. All have worked to earn such funding each year, following a formula from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), Fiorentino said.
William T. Hanelly, LHU vice president of finance and administration, leads the committee that submits the university's performance plan to PASSHE each year.
Student success is the first and foremost goal the plan must meet, he said.
Student access also is important, he said. Scholarships and financial aid should open doors for students with low financial assets, and the university should attract a diverse student population.
The university also must show it is a good steward of its financial resources, he said.
The PASSHE performance measures are written by a task force of representatives from all the universities, he said, so they are a collaborative effort.
Lock Haven has followed the formula and hit "pretty close to the mark" in recent years, he said, earning a fairly steady amount of performance funding, from $1.4 million to $1.6 million per year, about 8 percent of the university's state appropriation, Hanelly said.
This year for the first time, the university has set aside a pool of money in its budget to be sure it continues to earn that funding, he said.
A new set of PASSHE performance-funding goals is now in place, and Hanelly is confident LHU is on target to meet those goals.
"They align with our strategic plan anyway," he said. "It all fits well together in the way we are headed."
The new goals place even more emphasis on outcomes including graduation rates and number of degrees awarded. They also emphasize "STEM" studies - science, technology, engineering and math.
LHU eagerly awaits its East Campus Science Center, now under construction. When it opens this fall, it will provide a "state-of-the-art facility for students, a teaching and learning environment with necessary resources for students to advance their own education," Fiorentino said.
Students will be able to participate in research projects with faculty members in labs and with equipment similar to what they will find in graduate school or the career field, he said.
Faculty will be able to do this type of professional work and collaborate with other faculty at other schools, something they haven't done in the past simply because they haven't had the facilities, the university president added.
"You don't want to recruit students, bring them to the university and not give them what they need," he said.
ROAD TO GRADUATION
Some student needs are basic, and LHU wants to meet those as well, he said. Students may need help adjusting to university life, so the campus provides support programs like tutoring and information on study skills.
It also is providing more counseling services than in the past and is looking for ways to support student success even more, he said, something that's vital to the university's bottom line as well as to its overall balance.
"We don't look at it like that, though," Fiorentino said. "We care about the students."
Helping students earn a degree involves more than providing courses. Universities must "lead the student toward graduation," Fiorentino said.
It's a national issue, and the numbers show that LHU's success in retaining students is about average, he said.
"I'd say we're not losing more students than we should," he said.
Finances also are a retention issue, and LHU works to provide financial support.
"Students do leave because they can't afford to pay the bill," the president said.
Universities always have a certain amount of students who leave before completing a degree, but keeping them enrolled is even more important today because there are statistically fewer new ones to replace them.
"We can't recruit the same number of students that we used to because there are fewer high school graduates and there is more competition to recruit them," according to Fiorentino.
HELP ALONG THE WAY
Potential students look at affordability and accessibility too, when comparing one school with another. Tuition can be crucial to their choice.
Fiorentino hopes that one result of the Governor's Advisory Commission's report will be a way to better manage tuition fees. The funding system should be re-balanced so it doesn't place the majority of the burden on families, he said.
"Families are facing difficult economic times. Parents have lost their jobs and students need to work to support their education," he said. "It's a complicated situation."
"As the cost increases for students, and they are paying more of the bill, the national trend is that students need more financial assistance to maintain their role at a university," he said. "It's not an easy challenge to meet."
LHU even uses dollars from its operating budget for student aid, to the extent it can under state regulations, and recently asked the PASSHE chancellor's office if it could increase that amount for next year.
It also looks to its nonprofit foundation to raise funds for scholarships for many different sorts of students.
The campus student organization, which collects activities fees and supports athletics, clubs and other organizations, has even put part of its budget toward student aid this year, Hanelly said.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Recognizing that many students at state universities must work to help pay for their education, LHU continues to offer students jobs as well as to encourage businesses in the community to employ them, and also to provide internships.
"Look at the history of LHU and see how the internship concept has continually been built up and integrated into the life of our university," Fiorentino said. "It's part of our mission."
Internships help prepare students for the job market through "required practical application," he said. "They live and breathe in a professional environment, networking, seeing the bigger picture. We do emphasize our professional programs having some type of coordinated professional experience outside the classroom."
The university keeps track, Hanelly said, and can report "our students do well when they graduate."
The university is constantly examining and assessing its programs, both the academic ones and the co-curricular ones, Fiorentino said. The better it prepares students for jobs, the more students it can hope to attract.
Enrollment is a number the university can build itself. As Fiorentino said, "We can impact our own future."
With its continued recruitment efforts and the two new master's programs, Hanelly said, LHU can hope for an uptick in student numbers.
There is no clear path the university can take to increase its state funding, but performance funding, as suggested by the Governor's Advisory Commission, could give the universities more of a chance to influence their own budgets.
LHU's budget process may be more difficult this next time around, Fiorentino said. One factor is that faculty salaries haven't been agreed on for this school year, let alone the coming one.
The increasing costs of health care and retirement benefits can be figured into the spending plan, but every number that is typically plugged into a budget can't be predicted.
"We look at what's been happening in recent years in PASSHE and the state's revenue and growth and try to guess as best we can what's going to occur in state government," Fiorentino said.
In all of this, it's difficult to predict what will happen with tuition, he added.
"We have to submit a budget request, so we are always planning," he said.
Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed deep cuts for the state universities in the past two years. The schools had to take a 19-percent reduction in 2011 and receive what has been called "level funding" in 2012.
"Level funding" was to restore state funding for universities to the amounts received before the 19 percent cut. However, LHU received a little less than $20 million this year, equal to the amount received in the 2003-04 school year, according to Hanelly, and roughly one-quarter of its $63 million budget.
The university's budget process, then, must take into account the possibility of future cuts and fewer state dollars. It would be simple to stand ready to make a cut across the board, say five percent in every area, Fiorentino said, but that's not the process at LHU. Instead, hard questions should be asked, he said, questions like "Where is the least sacrifice?"
Reducing staff isn't necessarily an option, Fiorentino noted, because the university is not over-staffed anywhere.
The university has faced up to budget cuts for a number of years now, Hanelly said.
"It's been a way of life," he said. "I believe we've done a pretty good job. The entire campus community contributes to operating as efficiently as we can."
THE HIGH NOTES
If the opposite happens and PASSHE schools receive more state funding than expected, Lock Haven University will immediately turn to its strategic plan, its president said.
"The plan gives us a road map to advance the university," he said, "to raise the levels of programs and give students more."
Building maintenance projects have been deferred, not just at LHU but at all the universities, and these projects could move up to the front burner.
Yet, even while making budget cuts, LHU has continued to advance.
Health Science programs continue to grow, and to require more resources.
"We have great potential for increasing the Health Science emphasis," Fiorentino said. "It's been a positive emphasis for the university, and it's not the only one."
The $28 million East Campus Science Center has been a decade in the planning, and now it is a physical reality.
"Building it sends the message the university is interested in this type of program," the president said.
The giant Fairview Suites housing complex, built by the LHU Foundation and run by the university, opened this past fall and seems very successful so far, according to Fiorentino. Students were ready and waiting to live in it, and those who do live there seem to like it.
LHU students view the overall choices of residence halls favorably, Hanelly said, according to the latest market study, done this past fall. With the addition of Fairview Suites, campus housing seems comparable to what other universities offer, he said.
Fairview Suites replaced 40 percent of the university's old-style housing, he said. Gross Hall was closed this year because its dorm-style rooms aren't needed, and Russell is no longer needed as a residence hall. It holds administrative offices on the first and ground floors and is under study for renovation.
More suite buildings are planned, Hanelly said, and eventually will replace all the traditional halls.
The football program too is expanding, with increasing recruitment. The coaches are engaged in promoting, marketing and helping raise money for additional scholarships. The administration participates in this fundraising and supports the coaches, Fiorentino said.
"Coach (John) Allen has done an excellent job in rethinking the program and structuring it to build success," he said.
Much of its current success comes from the interaction of the students with Allen and his strong staff of assistant coaches, Fiorentino said.
"If you talk to any one of the football players, you'll hear nothing but the utmost respect for the coaches," he added.
With a good group of returning students for next year, the program is definitely looking up. Last season's final game - and first win - gave it an extra boost.
"Anyone at the game felt the excitement, witnessed the excitement," Fiorentino said. "It was fun for the student athletes to finish the year on a high note."