By David A. Atkinson
Fourteen state-owned universities are not out of proportion to Pennsylvania’s population, economic stature, or legacy of affordable higher education options. If anything, this may well constitute underrepresentation. For a parallel, look to when the community colleges were created during the 1960s. The prospective map called for twenty-eight. Yet only fourteen were established at the outset.
Now, due to a combination of many years of state underfunding (anyone with a bona fide degree can do the math) and worrisome drops in enrollment, the state universities are undergoing a painful process unimaginatively dubbed redesign.
Merging state universities has proved complicated, contentious, and controversial, especially in the directly affected host communities and counties. No surprise there. The universities are not only anchor enterprises and employers in these smaller communities, but they have extensive ties to businesses, nonprofit organizations, local governments, and other entities. Pipelines of job seekers, research and studies, product discoveries, and technical services flow outward, while goods and services and expertise flow onto campuses.
Given trends that have seen fewer students applying, and a steadily dropping percentage of state funding support that drives up tuition and student borrowing, the status quo was untenable from every vantage point. But it is hard to find anyone besides the chancellor and the board of governors reveling over redesign.
Even the most carefully plotted set of changes is far from a sure shot for reversing the enrollment drop. Whatever one thinks of the approach agreed upon and implemented by state system officials, there has not been any indication of what happens next. No plan shown. If somebody has truly figured out how to stop a serious challenge from becoming a death spiral for at least several of the state universities, they sure are holding that formula close to the vest.
When the merging and renaming and moving around of academic furniture are completed, the state universities still must confront the two major problems that contributed to the predicament. It may be that the schools emerge from this process politically strengthened, although even that ephemeral win is conjectural in terms of tangible reward. In the cold-hearted Darwinism of budget negotiations, a gold star applied to the foreheads of the chancellor and system governors for the old college try is worth as much as a degree in tiddlywinks and pickup sticks.
It is starting to become apparent what the merged universities have sacrificed in the name of economy, such as the well-regarded music program at Lock Haven. What have these campuses gained that will attract new students? Three campuses for one tuition? What a come-on, eh?
It is fair to contrast the cost of attending state universities here as opposed to those in other states. After all, most families are going to make that sort of comparison. It is unfair to blithely dismiss the reasons why those cost disparities exist. It is not smart to lose sight of where state university tuitions and fees stand compared to private colleges and universities and the state-related universities in our commonwealth.
The same daunting demographics of downward trajectory lie ahead. During the Great Recession, applications did not plummet because students were checking down on their preferences due to cost concerns. The pandemic has not offered the same sort of relief, because even community colleges, the most financially accessible of higher education options, have suffered an enrollment slump. Just to add another set of hurdles, a recent report in TIME described more of our students enrolling in Canadian colleges as a lower-cost option.
The key question is: what new pools of potential students are going to be explored? And then, how are you going to out-compete other post-secondary institutions to bring them in?
There are possibilities for picking up enrollment. A good starting place is putting an end to charging DACA kids out-of-state tuition rates, a huge disincentive when they are already ineligible for student assistance. Opponents of leveling tuition argued DACA kids would be taking the place of Pennsylvania students. Well, the enrollment drop knocked the pins from beneath that already fallacious argument. It is foolish to let bias stand in the way of a reachable answer to sustainability in enrollment.
It is not as though the universities have been bereft of reforms and advances. Obviously, those universities at the top have more capacity to pursue upgrades than those at the bottom of the measures.
Insufficiency of state funding is a more serious handicap than lack of imagination and initiative. Yes, federal pandemic relief helped stave off budgetary crisis. But the state does not appear to have significant dollars to pump into higher education generally, much less one segment of it. There will be the same scramble between state-related universities, state universities, community colleges, and private colleges and universities for a share of state money. Now, some will argue Pennsylvania does not directly underwrite privates. True, but check out indirect line items. Even more, PHEAA grants and loans involve substantially more dollars for students at higher priced private schools.
There are promising signs on the program front. Slippery Rock announced it is running point on a health care initiative. Goodness knows that is an area of critical need, again exacerbated by the pandemic. West Chester has upped its collaboration with Delaware County Community College on a student preparedness effort. Universities are utilizing niche strengths and responding to needs clearly expressed by the communities and constituencies they serve.
Shippensburg University is ranked in the top 10% nationwide for best value. Complain all we want about tuition and fees, the analysts are seeing no obvious mismatch in value added through SU programs and courses. An improved rating and wider recognition are nice affirmation of the changes in curriculum and student assistance taking place. But there always looms the “However…” The highly competitive environment ensures that the incessant negative commentary coming from legislative critics and public and private colleges and universities is hard to counteract. The carping from notoriously parsimonious legislators is especially disingenuous.
SU has made remarkable strides in upgrading science and technology instruction. The banner improvement is adding five engineering degrees, and converting an antiquated power plant into lab space for two of these programs. As significant as this development is for higher education and the economy, it is being marketed at a time when increasingly large portions of the citizenry are becoming either science skeptical or science stupid. The best message cannot connect if the audience is a failure, to paraphrase Mark Twain.
The quick political reaction has not been promising. A buyout has reduced the ranks, but a lot of valuable experience is said to have departed the campuses. Does anyone think that students looking to make a selection are going to just look past the uncertainty of how the restructured universities are going to provide a better product? Even new math has trouble turning subtraction into addition without corresponding proof.
Another troubling trend suddenly emerged in a separate arena. The lawyers defending the state’s education funding distribution for basic education have launched an assault on the cost and utility of a liberal arts education. There is a decided disconnect between what employers say they are searching for in workers and what some political leaders are portraying as necessary.
Considering the high stakes in this debate, the commentary is dismayingly one-sided. Dozens of state officials have pontificated at length about the supposed shortcomings and reduced utility of the state universities. It is no surprise that those who most denigrate the value of a general education meant to last a lifetime are also busily undermining many of our other core institutions and democratic principles.
Who is missing in action? Leaders willing to make clear and unqualified statements about why we need accessible and affordable state universities. Leaders who explain how Pennsylvania’s families will be disserved and our future diminished if the universities fold and become artifacts on display in the state museum. Leaders who give a true assessment of the value-added worth of a public university, free of the partisan, philosophical, and petty contentions that cloud public perceptions.
This is not hard to do. The place for the state-owned public university has not diminished. At its purest, their mission is to provide a well-educated, well-trained, knowledgeable, and thoughtful population who understand the foundational principles of democracy and invest energy in securing the institutions and precepts that allow it to survive the dark times and thrive in the good times.
David A. Atkinson is an associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.