A proposal that would allow West Chester University to withdraw from the state’s financially-strapped higher education system could hit students and parents in the pocketbook, the system’s chancellor warned Thursday.
If West Chester were to become a “state-related” school like Pennsylvania State University, it would most certainly mean higher tuition and other costs, said Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Students at Penn State’s main campus pay $26,362 annually in tuition, fees and room and board, compared to about $17,000 annually on average at the 14 state system universities.
“I have real concerns about this not only for those that decide to leave the system but for those that decide to remain,” Brogan said Thursday. “The beauty of the (state\] system is our ability to still maintain an affordability for our students that others can’t. We can do that because we are subsidized by the state.”
Last week, two Southeastern Pennsylvania legislators — Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) — said they were preparing legislation to allow West Chester and other larger universities in the system to gain greater autonomy or go it alone.
The 112,300-student system is facing perhaps the greatest challenge in its 30-plus year history. Enrollment has declined six percent since 2010 - with drops of more than 20 percent at some schools — and state funding has remained flat for the last two years, following an 18 percent cut.
“The money to our schools has dropped so much I might as well become a state-related,” said Tomlinson, a 1970 graduate of West Chester, who serves on its board of trustees and also on the Senate appropriations committee. “I’d rather run the school myself with my board and my administration. I’m willing to take less state money for more flexibility in running my own institution.”
West Chester has been growing; it recently became the system’s largest with 15,845 students, surpassing Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Bloomsburg and West Chester were the only two schools to show enrollment increases this year. Other system schools are: California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg and Slippery Rock.
Proponents of the legislation worry that West Chester and other more prosperous schools are having to shore up struggling institutions. If West Chester were to withdraw, it could add programs or change tuition without system approval and avoid paying system fees.
Tomlinson said the legislation, which would allow universities with more than 7,000 students - nine of the 14 - to break away, will be unveiled at a press conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday. Universities that want to withdraw also would have to prove they have the financial means to buy their way out of the system over a period of years by acquiring assets under the state’s domain.
The state system has been too slow to respond to changing academic needs and bleeding enrollment, Tomlinson said.
“They’re going to have to give some flexibility to individual schools and they are going to have to right size and repurpose some schools,” he said. “You can’t run schools that have 3,000 students like they have 6,000.”
Of Brogan’s assertions, he said he’s not trying to destroy the system: “I’m trying to save the system.”
Both Tomlinson and Brogan said they are not looking to close any schools.
But Brogan worries that schools remaining in the system could be harmed. The system saves money on shared services in payroll, human resources and other areas. If some withdraw, that would reduce the savings, he said.
The four state-related schools, Temple, Penn State, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh, have established larger endowments, fund-raising and a distinct brand that would not be easily or quickly replicated, he added.
“Someone who thinks you can make the jump to a quasi-private based on sheer size, I don’t think understands the business model that is required to operate in that arena,” Brogan said.
The state system’s financial outlook is daunting. At one time, the state covered 67 percent of the system’s costs. Now, just 27 percent or $412 million comes from the state — the same amount it got in 1997-98.
The system faces a $61 million budget hole for next year, which it has proposed to close with a four percent state funding increase, a one-time $18 million cash payment from the state and a 3 percent tuition increase. Problem is the governor has proposed another funding freeze. Without the additional state funds, larger tuition hikes are possible, Brogan said.
There are better ways to deal with the concerns, he said. The system recently began allowing universities to submit proposals to alter tuition and some have. Edinboro got approval to lower out-of-state tuition so it could draw more students from neighboring Ohio. Clarion can charge more for its nursing program. West Chester can lower costs for students at its center city Philadelphia site.
The system also will look at closer collaboration with other colleges across the state, he said.