As enrollments continue to slide, is there a way to save Pa’s state-owned universities? | Mark O’Keefe

Shippensburg University in Cumberland County, Pa. (Image via Flickr Commons)

The news was not good last week for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

There was hope earlier this year that a two percent increase in state funding combined with a tuition freeze could stem a major decline in student enrollment at the state system’s 14 universities.

However, state system officials announced last week that enrollment has dropped 2.6 percent since last year. It’s the ninth straight year that student enrollment has declined overall.

The system now enrolls 95,802 students, the same number it had 20 years ago. Enrollment has dropped by 24,059 students since it peaked at 119,513 in 2010.

Declines were reported at 10 of the 14 schools. Cheyney University had the biggest increase at 32 percent, followed by Mansfield University at 2 percent, West Chester University at .7 percent and Millersville University at .4 percent.

Indiana University reported the biggest decline at 8.6 percent, followed by Lock Haven University at 7.7 percent, California University at 6.4 percent, Shippensburg University at 4.9 percent, Edinboro University at 3.9 percent, Clarion University at 3.4, East Stroudsburg University at 3.3 percent, Bloomsburg University at 2.6, Kutztown University at 1.3 percent and Slippery Rock University at .2 percent.

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There’s no doubt that trying to reverse the numbers will be a challenge in the years ahead.

According to a 2018 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 also 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,” read the report.

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The report noted that competition for students is intensifying, particularly with state-related university branch campuses, such as those operated by Penn State University, which enjoy the benefit of state funding, but operate with far broader autonomy than their state-owned counterparts.

The report added that that the board of governors which 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 which might not be in the best interests of the system.

So, what can be done? Well, the report urged state system officials to consider closing universities or merging them. They urged 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.

They also suggested modifying the board of governors’ membership to reduce political influence and conflicts of interest. They added that the system should allow more independence for schools doing well and more oversight for those performing poorly.

Officials for the system rejected outright all of those recommendations, deciding instead to focus on things such as student retention.

That might work out in time but system officials would be wise to take a good look at Cheyney University where Aaron Walton, a retired corporate executive, has engineered a major turnaround since he was hired in 2017.

On the verge of closing before Walton arrived, the university had a $2.1 surplus this year. Walton cut $9 million in expenditures while starting a successful fund-raising campaign led by university alumni which raised $4.4 million.  Walton hopes to raise another $5.6 million next year.

Best of all, after enrollment is up in a big way. Enrollment at the university plummeted from 1,586 in 2010 to 469 last fall, but it rebounded to 618 this fall.

It was interesting that Walton was able to get Cheyney alumni so involved in its fundraising. The state-owned schools have graduated thousands of students over the years and many of them have been very successful. If the right pitch is made, they would no doubt be willing to help their alma maters in their time of need.

For the most part, state system schools have been waiting on a bailout from the state, which probably will never come. They would be wiser to take action on their own as Cheyney did. That might lead finally to some good news.

Capital-Star opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly. 

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