Lawmakers urged to act now to save state university system
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The leader of Pennsylvania’s system of 14 state-owned universities told lawmakers Tuesday that it is urgent they act to help the schools in the face of sinking enrollment, rising student debt and a lagging commitment of public tax dollars to higher education.
The system’s chancellor, Dan Greenstein, urged the House Appropriations Committee to approve legislation that would deliver cash and greater authority to the system over how it spends money and administers the schools.
Greenstein, in office since 2018, has rejected calls to close struggling schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Several schools are not sustainable without “radical transformation,” he told the committee Tuesday. But he also warned against shutting down universities when Pennsylvania needs to greatly increase the number of adults with degrees for its economy to keep pace with other states.
“This is not a time when we should be diminishing educational opportunities,” Greenstein said.
Pennsylvania has sunk to the bottom rung of states in the level of higher education aid, size of student debt and affordability of its colleges.
For this year, the system is seeking $9 million more, or 2%, to help keep tuition flat, in addition to another $20 million that is part of a five-year, $100 million plan to upgrade information technology, roll out online courses and more.
The system can make the budget of each university individually self-sustaining within five years, but the schools’ situation is “urgent,” and the state must act now, Greenstein said.
“They will look different, but they will be stable, and delivering the 21st-century education that our state needs,” Greenstein said.
Greenstein received some applause and some skepticism from members of the Republican majority on the panel.
Some members worried that the system schools would compete with their local community colleges. Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, said dropping enrollment means that state aid per student had actually risen by about 22% in recent years, and questioned whether dropping enrollments reflect a dropping value of a college education.
Greenstein countered that dropping enrollment is driven by affordability, and that college degrees drive an economy.
“The more you learn, the more you earn,” he said.
The system currently receives $477 million in state aid, less than it did in the 2006-07 school year.
The universities have emerged as a top agenda item for Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.
Wolf last month requested a new, $200 million-a-year scholarship program for low- and middle-income state-system students who stay in-state after they graduate.
Wolf’s proposal serves several purposes: combating growing student debt; attracting more students to state system schools; and keeping more college grads in an aging state that desperately needs them.
A major complication of Wolf’s plan is the cash source. Wolf is proposing to divert it from 15-year-old subsidies for the horse-racing industry, and the idea faces stiff resistance in the Legislature.
Greenstein is in the midst of overhauling the system, working to share administrative resources between universities, avoid duplication in offerings and provide courses more neatly aligned to demand.
Enrollment has fallen 20% since 2010 to below 100,000, driven by steep declines of students from families whose annual incomes are below $110,000, according to the system.
Greenstein said the enrollment decline is primarily related to affordability. If Pennsylvania funded the universities in line with other states, tuition would be 22% lower, Greenstein said.
Had state aid kept pace with inflation, the system would be receiving $670 million from the state, Greenstein said.
State aid now makes up less than one-third of the system’s budget, down from two-thirds four decades ago. The rest comes from tuition and fees.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter