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PASSHE chancellor offers insight on university’s struggles, resolve for future

FILE PHOTO Dan Greenstein, at right, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, testifies before the state House of Representatives in 2020 to talk about the system and answer questions from lawmakers.

To Chancellor Dan Greenstein of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, integrating Lock Haven University with two of its sister schools is about “saving The Haven.”

“This is not a negotiation, we have to save this university,” said Greenstein.

“Public higher education is worth fighting for,” he told The Express community newspaper during a recent interview as he addresses faculty and staff at LHU.

Many Lock Haven students, faculty, alumni and area residents are aware of the Act 50 legislation passed in 2020 to allow for the merger of LHU with its neighboring PASSHE sister universities — Mansfield and Bloomsburg.

Greenstein will present a detailed recommendation for the merger to the PASSHE Board of Governors on April 28, and that presentation will be followed by a 60-day public comment period, which will perhaps culminate in a final decision by the Board of Governors at their meeting on July 15.

The storm of emotions and outcries from students and Lock Haven residents, as well as the LHU branch of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties (APSCUF) representing unionized faculty, has been intense.

And as LHU APSCUF plans a downtown rally today and then a virtual town hall meeting on March 30, Chancellor Greenstein had plans to meet again with faculty and staff this Monday, March 22.

In talking to the campus community, Greenstein outlined the challenges LHU and most of its sister schools face: Declining enrollment and the resulting drop in tuition and housing revenues.

Combined with increased costs coming from contractual payroll and empty buildings, there’s been a corresponding decrease in operating margin ratio (the annual revenues, minus annual expenses, divided by the annual revenues) that have resulted in the financial instability LHU now faces, he told The Express.

LHU enrollment declined over 17% since the 2017-2018 academic year, and tuition costs have increased over 62% in the past decade. LHU’s average operating margin ratio between 2018-2020 was -3.4%, and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) recommends an operating margin ratio of 2-4%. Greenstein explained that even with the current annual subsidies of around $10 million provided by PASSHE to LHU, the university is burning through its reserves at a rate of around $7 million per year, and will completely exhaust them in two to three years.

LHU financial challenges are not uncommon in the PASSHE family of universities. Six of the other 13 institutions have similar levels of declines in enrollment, and five additional institutions have declined at lower rates.

“Nine of the most financially challenged (universities) were told they have to pull things together,” Greenstein explained, “They were told they need to restructure to operate in a sustaining manner.”

Due to the interwoven nature of the PASSHE universities, the financial strain of one institution, or several, as is the current situation, creates a ripple effect for all of the other institutions, he explained.

Greenstein said he is no stranger to the concern and instability of PASSHE, and it was, in fact, a motivator for his interest in the role of chancellor.

“I came here (PASSHE) because I believe in the power of public higher education. At the Gates Foundation I focused on that very thing, and when I left Gates (Foundation) I was looking for a place that needed help,” said Greenstein, “I was drawn to PASSHE because in the job description they (the board) admitted that it was in need of a fundamental change and an overhaul to the system — it is rare for a board to say, ‘we’re in trouble, but we are committed to to finding a way to continue our mission to provide low-cost, quality education.'”

And the promise to provide affordable, quality-education by the PASSHE Board of Governors is echoed in all things LHU.

One of the first things potential students and their families see when beginning their exploration of the university on it’s website is a promise to offer them a “small, personal, affordable” education and experience, with a “community that’s like a second family”.

Lock Haven residents take pride in the school, and value it’s students. With Lock Haven’s population of just over 9,000, the incoming students nearly double that population each year even at a declined enrollment of just over 3,000. This pride and economic bolster to the region provides a healthy symbiotic relationship for the town and the university.

Likewise, it is understandable that the community has marked concern at the coming changes. That was echoed just this week when Lock Haven City Council voted unanimously to ask PASSHE to delay the integration until after studying and revealing the educational, economic and cultural impacts on students, the economy and community.

Greenstein says he is cognizant of concerns by all of LHU’s stakeholders and remains optimistic with the integration plan for the three universities.

“All of the challenges are possible to turn around – but we need an all-hands approach in order to succeed,” said Greenstein.

Greenstein elaborated on the affordability of LHU as a key component in enrollment and student outcomes.

“The thing that is hurting Lock Haven is the pricing model,” said Greenstein, “We have to determine how we can get back to a more affordable pricing model.”

In the 2009-2010 academic year, LHU enrollment costs were just over $12,000, and $7,000 less than other state related universities and competitors, like Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh. With the pronounced tuition increase in the past decade that is no longer the case, as LHU annual tuition has increased to over $21,000, and those same state related institutions enrollment costs are now only around $2,000 more. This increase of cost for LHU tuition in comparison to the nearly flat cost for it’s competitors has made the low-cost, more affordable argument difficult to make for potential students.

Additionally, Greenstein shared that the average annual household income of incoming LHU students is between $45,000 and $75,000, and with an annual tuition of now over $21,000, it is a difficult financial investment for potential students and their families to take on. This is a relatable challenge for most Clinton county residents, as the average household income is roughly $50,000, and many local residents consider higher-education for themselves or their children.

Greenstein believes the planned integration of LHU, Mansfield and Bloomsburg will help achieve a lower-cost, effective educational offering once more — and he believes the quality and program offerings for the three universities will increase as well.

“By putting these three universities together you harness their unique strengths,” said Greenstein. “LHU has tremendous strengths – it’s nursing, sports sciences, and education, among others.”

Although specific details are not yet available, Greenstein says that between 80 and 90 program areas will be available for students who enroll in any one of the three universities, which will more than double the program offerings LHU can promise potential students.

He is confident that the larger group of students and faculty that will be achieved through the merger, as well as a more in-depth hybrid learning experience to include in-person and remote options, will make that possible.

When asked about his thoughts on concerns voiced by some faculty and students about remote learning, Greenstein said that even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent distance-learning measures, 44% of all PASSHE students had at least one course online.

Going further, Greenstein says he is certain that program breadth is more crucial to LHU and it’s sister universities than face-to-face learning options. “Why do students come to college? They come to college because they want to set themselves up for life,” said Greenstein, “They want to do that where they have the best range of opportunities.”

And Greenstein’s belief in, and work toward making quality, affordable higher education more widely attainable is not a new project in his career. As previously mentioned, he joined PASSHE as chancellor after working several years with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While there, he worked with other higher education leaders across the country on initiatives designed to raise educational-attainment levels and to promote economic mobility, especially among low-income and minority students.

He developed and implemented a national strategy for increasing the number of degrees awarded and for reducing the attainment gaps among majority and non-majority students at U.S. colleges and universities. Greenstein says he came to PASSHE because he believes in the power of higher education.

“Higher education is the most reliable pathway into the middle class. They (PASSHE universities) are incredible institutions that launch careers,” said Greenstein, “Historically PASSHE has been very good at it — they don’t just change lives, they save them.” Greenstein noted that 60% of jobs available in Pennsylvania require higher education, while only 47% of the current population had it, and the most notably under educated are those of lower income, minority and/or rural populations, making the importance of lower cost, quality education important from both an economic and social perspective for Lock Haven, as well as state-wide.

Still some residents, faculty, and students might ask “what if” the Board of Governors reject the proposed merger and integration measures, and whether other options might be considered for a positive outcome for LHU. Greenstein says those options are bleak, and not likely to yield any long-term stability or growth for PASSHE or its institutions.

“We are in a world of hurt, and it’s documented. None of this is new,” said Greenstein.

“We are bleeding cash, and we are drawing down on our universities as we are bleeding cash.”

Greenstein says the only other options aside from the merger are to request an unrealistic increase in funding from the state Legislature or to dissolve PASSHE and release all of the universities to become private institutions.

The Legislature has been resistant to increase funding levels without a commitment to make the changes necessary for the system to increase enrollment and decrease tuition, lessening any likelihood that option would come to fruition, and LHU and Mansfield will not be able to stand on their own for more than a few years as a private institution in its current financial position, he said.

“We have to work together — this is not a punitive measure. We have to work together to right the ship,” said Greenstein.

He says he is encouraging LHU faculty and staff to engage in the integration process that will develop and shape the merger and its outcome for the university, and he welcomes disagreement and “courageous conversation”, as he feels it will make the system and the school stronger and better in the long term.

Greenstein’s staff page on the PASSHE website is headlined by a quotation he made, “We need to be bold, and we need to keep students at the center of everything we do.”

For Lock Haven and Clinton County residents, that statement rings true now more than ever.

It is a time of great contemplation and disquietude as the campus and community consider the information and plans provided by Greenstein, as well as the value that LHU has brought economically and culturally to this small, rural area for over 150 years.

Greenstein said there are no doubts that an effective integration plan can give the university new strength — and more appeal to students and workers alike — going forward.

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