Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein speaks during a state House Appropriations Committee hearing on the state budget appropriation for the 10 state-owned universities. (screenshot)
The head of Pennsylvania’s state-owned college system told lawmakers on Wednesday that a modest increase in state funding over Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposal would allow its 10 universities to hold the line on tuition for an unprecedented fifth year.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein laid out a case before the state House Appropriations Committee for his $573.5 million funding request. That represents a 3.8% inflationary increase compared to the 2% increase Shapiro’s budget proposal includes.
PASSHE is also asking the General Assembly for an additional $112 million for student aid that would be used to lower the cost of attending a state-owned university, and bolster the system’s ability to produce graduates in high-demand career fields such as nursing, teaching and computer science.
Greenstein said PASSHE’s universities offer the most cost-effective option for Pennsylvania residents to earn a degree. Over the course of a career, PASSHE graduates see a nearly $1 million increase in earnings, Greenstein said.
“We are an engine of social mobility,” Greenstein said. “We’re not only fueling the workforce, we’re creating ladders of opportunity that people are climbing up and doing really well on and it makes me proud and actually a little bit emotional to be able to say that.”
Greenstein, who became PASSHE chancellor in 2018, has overseen a controversial consolidation of the system from 14 to 10 schools. Six of the universities with growing costs and lagging enrollment are in the process of merging into two regional institutions in the northern and western parts of the state.
“There are challenges of demography and just sort of legacy financial deficit that we need to get our arms around and we’re going to need to partner with the state in order to do that,” Greenstein said.
The consolidations allowed PASSHE to cut $300 million in operating costs over three years, Greenstein said, and made it possible to freeze tuition for the last four years. As a result, the difference in tuition between the PASSHE schools and their next-least-expensive rivals grew from $2,000 to $5,000, Greenstein said.
House Education Committee Chairperson Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, remarked on the appearance of a bipartisan recognition that investment in education could lead to better outcomes.
“It’s a remarkable change of tone and tenor. And I would say as a longtime member of the General Assembly, I welcome that conversation,” Schweyer said.
The hearing followed a session Tuesday where members of the panel grilled the heads of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities over a proposed 7% increase in the state’s contribution to help pay for reduced tuition for Pennsylvania residents. Each said they could not commit to holding tuition level even if the General Assembly approved the increase.
Rep. Seth Grove, of York County, the panel’s ranking Republican, asked Greenstein what Shapiro’s proposed 2% increase for PASSHE would mean for tuition.
“If we are to get 2%, … I would have I would I would go to the board and recommended tuition increase,” Greenstein said
In a question for Greenstein, Rep. Justin Fleming, D-Dauphin, noted the committee heard testimony in a hearing on Tuesday that community college graduates are more likely to continue their educations at out-of-state schools than at a Pennsylvania public university.
Greenstein said that’s not for a lack of collaboration between PASSHE schools and community colleges.
“That’s about price,” Greenstein said. “Students are ruthlessly self interested in a good way. They go to college to advance themselves in their careers and their families.”
If it’s less expensive to go out of state, students will opt for the higher return on investment, he said.
Greenstein said state money covers about 33% of a PASSHE student’s tuition. New York, New Jersey and Ohio pay about twice as much and students from households earning less than $125,000 can attend a State University of New York or City University of New York campus for free.
Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, whose district includes Mansfield University, which merged with Lock Haven and Bloomsburg universities to form Commonwealth University, asked what PASSHE is doing to manage its $1.8 billion in debt. Much of that stems from construction in anticipation of enrollment that never materialized.
Mansfield, Edinboro and Cheney universities have been exploring third-party uses of some of its underused residence halls, Greenstein said. For example, Mansfield has leveraged its Act 120 municipal police training program to create safety certification courses for industry that brings people to stay in its residence halls, he said.
Appropriations Committee Chairperson Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, noted that because the state owns the PASSHE universities, it also owns their debts.
“I think it’s … prudent for us to look at how we make sure all of the universities are successful, because they’re ours, we own them,” Harris said. “So I’ll be interested in just exploring all of the options on the table, to make sure that all of our universities are doing well and that there’s nothing that’s just too lopsided.”
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