LOCK HAVEN - Allowing any or all of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to secede from the system is a bad idea, state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton/Centre counties, said.
Hanna was reacting to legislation to be proposed today by state Sens. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson and Andy Dinniman. The two lawmakers from southeastern Pennsylvania announced they will introduce legislation in the Senate today "that would authorize institutions in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to become more independent."
The two plan to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. today in the State Capitol Media Center in Harrisburg to outline their proposal. The news conference will be streamed live at www.pasenategop.com.
Tomlinson, a Republican, represents 14 townships and boroughs in Bucks County. Dinniman, a Democrat, represents multiple townships, boroughs and the city of Coatesville in neighboring Chester County.
West Chester University is in Chester County, and it is one of only two state universities to see an enrollment increase (Bloomsburg is the other.) Under the proposed legislation, West Chester would be allowed to secede from PASSHE.
The state system consists of 14 universities, including Lock Haven University.
Hanna said any secession from PASSHE would cause higher tuition rates, including at LHU and other universities that would stay in the state system.
"As a member of the Legislature for 20 years and a PASSHE board member since 2004, I've seen the countless proposals aimed at improving higher education in Pennsylvania. Today's proposal, while I believe its authors are well-intentioned, would fail to meet that objective," he said.
"Permitting schools to leave the state system doesn't make the school stronger, or the system stronger," he said. "The underlying issue here is that our state schools have suffered unprecedented cuts under the current administration. Succession may be a short-term fix at a time when Pennsylvania needs a long-term solution."
He said he objects to the proposed legislation because it would:
r Mean higher tuition and fees "for every student." This would lead to even smaller enrollments and eventually to fewer faculty and staff members, he said.
r Force universities to compete "even more strenuously for declining state funds."
r Weaken PASSHE's buying power for services such as insurance coverage. Also, any university that secedes could not benefit from that buying power.
r Make it harder for students to transfer from one university to another.
Gov. Tom Corbett's budgets, according to Hanna, "have included the most significant reductions for higher education in our state's history."
His suggestions are to focus on restoring funding and expanding PASSHE to include the community colleges and state-related universities.
Lock Haven University directed The Express questions to a spokesman for PASSHE, Kenn Marshall.
Marshall, media relations manager for the state system, said LHU is in the same position as the majority of the state universities - it has fewer students.
"Enrollments have declined somewhat over the last couple of years," Marshall said, "but Lock Haven University is doing the things they need to do to stay healthy and address the financial issues they are facing. We are confident they will do what is necessary to meet the needs of their students long into the future."
Why are fewer people pursuing a college education? The state is in a trend of having fewer high school graduates. "Those numbers continue to decline," Marshall said. And there are fewer graduates because of a historical decline in birth rate, according to a Trib Total Media story.
At California University of Pennsylvania, where enrollment slipped 12 percent from 2010 to 2013, Larry Maggi, chairman of the school's council of trustees, said there is no question major change is needed. At the edge of the Marcellus shale gas fields, the school is competing against the draw of gas jobs that pay well and do not require a college degree, said Maggi, a Washington County commissioner.
"It's kind of like it was in 1968 when kids would graduate and go to work in the coal mines or steel mills," he said.
"But we don't see allowing universities to leave to be a solution," Marshall said. "The chancellor and the board of governors (of PASSHE) are talking about making sure the universities are offering the right type of programs to meet student needs. They need to cut programs with declining enrollment and introduce programs in higher demand areas."
Although details were not announced yesterday about the two legislators' proposal, it would open a door for larger universities to leave PASSHE, universities like West Chester which has an undergraduate enrollment of 13,297.
The door would be open for state schools with more than 7,000 students. U.S. News and World Report numbers show that besides West Chester, these schools would be Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with numbers close to West Chester's; Bloomsburg and Kutztown with around 9,000 undergraduates; Millersville with 7,400 and Slippery Rock with 7,900.
LHU has an undergraduate enrollment of close to 5,000 so apparently could not secede under the proposal.
PASSHE institutions currently serve a total of 122,000 students.
"What does the size have to do with the quality?" Marshall asked.
"We really have some concerns about how it would affect the affordability if a university chooses to leave the system," he said.
Tuition at any of the 14 state schools is a little over $6,400 per year, he said, while it's close to triple that at three of the four state-related universities, including Penn State.
"The 14 universities purchase a lot of goods and services through joint contracts and they do save significantly in the cost of equipment, the cost of some services. Right now, shared services are provided systemwide - payrolls, benefits administration, legal services. Again, impacting costs for the universities means impacting students," he said.
The state has provided only "level funding" for the past two years - meaning no increases. The year before that, Marshall said, the universities took an 18 percent cut.
"It's at the same level now as 15 years ago. Costs continue to increase, salaries, benefits, healthcare, pensions... The portion covered from the state has declined from 75 percent just before the system was created to about 25 percent," he said.
Sen. Tomlinson has said, "I still believe and many believe the system is headed for a train wreck."
He said, "There may be a need for some right-sizing, but my intention is that all schools survive and continue to exist. This (proposed legislation) will begin a very serious conversation that probably should have taken place earlier."
It also would allow the schools that appear to be the financially healthiest to break away.
Chancellor Frank Brogan of PASSHE identified Edinboro, Clarion and Mansfield, where enrollment slipped 18, 17 and 12 percent respectively in the past three years, as schools facing the most strain.
He is asking that lawmakers increase funding for system schools from $412.8 million to $447.3 million next year.
"Not only are we and the universities going to have to make some changes, but the state, at some point, is going to have to decide its responsibility," he said.
When Brogan appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month pressing for a funding increase, Dinniman said, "I am concerned by what appears to be a potential house of cards in terms of both finances and demographics."
Rep. David Reed, R-Indiana, said the discussion comes up every few years.
"It's enhanced with a couple of state schools struggling, and a couple expanding. I don't think it will happen overnight, but it's a responsible discussion to have," Reed said.
Rep. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro, whose rural district includes Mansfield University, said proposals to dismantle the system have little traction in Harrisburg. It would have serious financial ramifications for schools left behind, and those that leave and must acquire state property on campus.
"But I think there is a realization that we cannot continue to pursue the same models we have," said Baker, also a member of the system's board of governors.
Officials at Edinboro and Clarion said they're adjusting offerings to fill empty seats.
Clarion President Karen Whitney said giving by alumni is up, as the school works to start a new doctoral program in nursing, revamp its offerings and increase recruitment.
"I'm optimistic that by 2016, we will see the fruition of these efforts," she said.
Edinboro spokesman Jeff Hileman said applications and admissions for next fall are up. He said the school, near the Ohio border, hopes to recruit more out-of-state students because the state system let it reduce out-of-state tuition from 250 percent of resident tuition to 105 percent. The school also wants to add more two-year degree programs in a region where there are no community colleges.
Hanna said, "While we cannot treat our system with a one-size-fits-all approach, it's clear to me that we are stronger together."
Some information came from a Trib Total Media article by Deb Erdley.