A tuition freeze was a good first step. Pa’s state-owned universities still have big problems to fix | Opinion

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By Mark O’Keefe

No doubt students and their parents celebrated recently when the Board of Governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education approved a tuition freeze for the first time in 21 years — and  for only the second time since the 14-school system was established a generation ago. 

According to PennLive, the board’s vote means that students will pay the same tuition for the 2019-20 academic year as they did in 2018-19. Basic tuition for in-state undergraduate students will remain at $7,716 for the 2019-20 school year. The freeze comes on the heels of 2 percent increase for the state system in the 2019-20 state budget.

That means students from Edinboro University in northwestern Pennsylvania to West Chester University in the Philadelphia suburbs, to all points in between, will have one less thing to worry about as they head back to class this fall.

For state system officials however, larger questions remain. For instance, will the freeze do anything to arrest plummeting enrollment at the universities. The system’s enrollment peaked at 112,000 in 2011 but has dropped by 18 percent since then. About 90,000 students will attend the system this fall, according to PennLive.

The fact is that state system faces some daunting demographic challenges in its bid to increase enrollment.According to a study by the RAND Corp., which was commissioned by the state Senate, most of the state-system universities serve a local area and draw students from surrounding counties.

But it pointed out that 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will experience declines in traditional college-age students over the next 10 years, ranging from 3 percent to 45 percent.

The report noted that while state system tuition levels remain more affordable than those of state-related institutions, room and board charges are increasing faster than at state-related institutions.

Moreover, the report maintained that some services, such as counseling and student retention initiatives, have been curtailed while others have been downsized, with staff let go or asked to reduce hours.

These services are critical to ensure the success of students, particularly underrepresented and first-generation students. Interviewees suggested that inadequate state support and revenue from tuition have affected these providers of student support, as has increased competition for funding among the different services.”

The report noted as a result, graduation rates at the state-owned universities lag behind those of state-related and other four-year private institutions in Pennsylvania.

These differences could reflect a different mix of students and their needs―and, possibly, better academic and student services offered at state-related and private institutions,” according to the report.

The report also pointed out problems with governance of the system.

State System and university officials reported that the State System governance structure sometimes allows political views, rather than the best interests of the system and its universities, to govern decisions. A Board of Governors that oversees the State System includes the governor and several members of the legislature representing partisan points of view.

This structure enables members to infuse their ideologies and views in education discussions,” the report added.

And it’s not like the current system is working all that well financially for the state’s college students.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average in-state tuition at a public university in the U.S. is $6,131. In Pennsylvania, that price tag is $12,186.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania college graduates leave school with the second-most average college debt at $35,759, according to a ranking by U.S. News and World Report.

The report urged state system officials to consider closing the universities or merging them. They also recommended possible alignments where state-owned universities could serve as branch campuses for state-related universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Temple or Penn State University.

State system officials are dead set against closing or merging state-system universities, contending that could adversely affect students in poorer, rural communities.

However, you have to wonder how many young people aren’t going to college because of exorbitant tuition rates at our state-related universities, and how many are financially crushed by the loans they have to pay once they graduate.

It’s clear that fundamental changes have to be made.

State system officials, along with Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature, should be working together to find some workable solutions which will lower tuition rates while providing quality college educations for our young people. However, they’re all going their separate ways with their own agendas.

One thing is certain. Freezing tuition for a year won’t do much in the long-range scheme of things.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe is the former Editorial Page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He writes from Mechanicsburg, Pa. 

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