Legislation proposed to allow West Chester U to leave state system

Two lawmakers from Southeastern Pennsylvania on Tuesday unveiled proposed legislation that would allow West Chester University and other financially healthy state schools with more than 7,000 students to withdraw from the state’s higher education system.

Sens. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) want the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to give its 14 universities greater autonomy or allow them to go it alone. They maintain that the state system has been too slow to respond to changing academic needs and bleeding enrollment.

Nine of the 14 universities have more than 7,000 students. But under the proposal, universities allowed to exit also would have to show financial stability and the ability to buy their way out of the system over a period of years by acquiring assets under the state's domain. They also would have to continue to contribute to employer share for pension obligations.

Union contracts in effect at the time a university withdraws would remain in effect until their expiration under the proposal.

“This creates opportunity for stronger relationships with local communities by increasing jobs, supporting economic development and becoming more agile in responding to the needs of their region,” Tomlinson, who also is a member of West Chester's board of trustees, said in a statement. “Most importantly, universities will remain committed to their mission of providing a quality and affordable education.”

Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the state system, has warned that the proposal could mean higher tuition and costs for universities that withdraw. State-related universities, such as Pennsylvania State University, charge more than the state system. Students at Penn State's main campus pay $26,362 annually in tuition, fees, and room and board, compared with about $17,000 annually on average at the state system universities.

The Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties - the faculty union - also opposes the legislation. fearing it will cause tuition hikes.

"This legislation allows the universities to turn their backs on the core mission of the State System of Higher Education and the students it serves to provide access to a quality public higher education to the average Pennsylvanian,” said Steve Hicks, president. “This legislation will funnel taxpayer money to institutions that don’t have to answer to the taxpayers. That may be politics as usual, but it is not in the interests of our students or the commonwealth.”

But the legislators dismissed that notion in an information sheet about their proposal: “Attempts are being made to scare Pennsylvanians that departing universities will raise their tuition to the levels of other state-related schools. This is false. Most state-related institutions have higher tuition because of mission-related factors such as an emphasis on research, doctoral preparation, and Division I athletic programs, not because they are state-related. Departing schools will retain their missions as regional comprehensive institutions focused on quality and affordability.”

Brogan also is concerned about the impact on schools that would remain in the system.

The legislators maintain they will get stronger with the help of cash payments for property that the withdrawing schools will make.

They also said sports will not be affected

The legislators’ proposal elicited immediate backlash from State Rep. Mike Hanna, the House Democratic whip and also a member of the state higher education system’s board.

“Permitting schools to leave the state system doesn't make the school stronger, or the system stronger,” Hanna said in a statement. “The underlying issue here is that our state schools have suffered unprecedented cuts under the current administration. Secession may be a short-term fix at a time when Pennsylvania needs a long-term solution.”

Said state Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne/Carbon): "Any effort that could potentially lead to the disbanding of our state system – an effort that has proved to significantly increase student costs and diminished access to higher education in other states – is not in the best interest of our students or our schools."

But Dinniman, minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, defended the proposal.

“I am concerned by what appears to be a potential house of cards in terms of both finances and demographics,” he said in a statement. “It's not just about making up the money; it's about attracting more students. And I am concerned that the state system may be engaging in a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The 112,300-student system is facing perhaps the greatest challenge in its 30-plus-year history. Enrollment has declined 6 percent since 2010, with drops of more than 20 percent at some schools, and state funding has remained flat the last two years following an 18 percent cut.

But not all of the schools are struggling. West Chester and Bloomsburg are growing and proponents of the legislation worry that the healthy schools are having to shore up at their expense those that are struggling. If West Chester were to withdraw, it could add programs or change tuition without system approval or having to pay system fees.

West Chester recently became the system's largest school, with 15,845 students, surpassing Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (Other system schools are California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock.)