Opening an escape hatch for universities to flee the state’s higher education system is an idea that doesn’t seem to have much support outside the southeast corner of Pennsylvania.
But lawmakers and education officials say that doesn’t diminish the enrollment and financial crises facing those schools.
A dozen of the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education are enrolling fewer students.
They are straining under two years of flat funding, which followed an 18 percent cut in state support during Gov. Tom Corbett’s first year in office, said system spokesman Kenn Marshall.
“We are dealing with enormous challenges,” Marshall said.
Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, R-Bucks, filed a bill last week to allow universities in the system with more than 7,000 students to be reclassified as “state-related” universities – such as Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh or Temple University – which enjoy more autonomy.
Tomlinson is on the board of trustees at West Chester University, near Philadelphia, the largest university in the state system with an enrollment of close to 16,000.
It and Bloomsburg University, in Columbia County, are the only two seeing growth in student numbers.
Tomlinson’s bill would allow universities to essentially buy their campuses – and autonomy – from the state.
Proceeds from the sales would return to the State System of Higher Education to bolster the remaining universities. The proposal is scheduled for a hearing next month before the Senate Education Committee.
As state funding has diminished, Tomlinson said, so has the advantage of being in the state system. That’s made the push for independence more attractive.
But that push appears limited.
Bloomsburg spokeswoman Rosalee Rush said officials there were not consulted by lawmakers who wrote the bill. Bloomsburg President David Soltz had not seen the legislation so wouldn’t comment, Rush said.
Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, whose district includes Bloomsburg, said he doesn’t believe the university should exit the state system.
Officials at Indiana University of Pennsylvania were not part of the discussion of Tomlinson’s legislation, either, said spokeswoman Michelle Fryling. The enrollment at IUP is just less than 15,000, making it the second-largest university in the system.
“We are proud members of the state system,” Fryling said.
State System Chancellor Frank Brogan, who took the helm six months ago, said the Tomlinson plan would mean higher tuition at any institution that takes the escape route.
“This would create an added burden for students and their families,” Brogan said in a statement. “Every university that leaves the state system could close another door to affordable, quality public higher education.”
Tuition at Penn State, Pitt and Temple runs about $10,000 a year more than tuition charged by universities in the state system.
The state system also is trying to give member universities the flexibility to adapt to their current problems, particularly since Brogan arrived, Gordner said.
Bloomsburg and the universities in Edinboro and Clarion have been approved for doctoral programs in nursing.
And Edinboro, which has seen its enrollment drop 18 percent since 2010-11, soon will allow out-of-state students to attend while paying only 5 percent more in tuition than Pennsylvania students, Marshall said. Out-of-state students typically pay 150 percent to 250 percent of the $6,622 tuition charged to in-state students.
The change is significant because it means tuition for Ohio students at Edinboro, in Erie County, will be less expensive than tuition at state universities in the eastern part of the Buckeye State, said Gordner. Tuition at Youngstown State in eastern Ohio is $8,087 this year, and tuition at Kent State is $9,816, according to tuition schedules on their websites.
Francis Miller, a finance major at Bloomsburg University, said raising rates at institutions in the state system would create problems for many students, even if their schools gain semi-independence.
“A lot of the students come here because of the tuition,” Miller said.
With about 10,000 students, Bloomsburg is the third-largest university in the state system.
But Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, who co-sponsored the bill, said that without a drastic change, some of the struggling universities won’t survive.
An analysis by the senators who support the bill found that eight of the system’s universities lost money last year. West Chester made a profit of almost 10 percent, while IUP made 6.96 percent and Kutztown made 5.87 percent. None of the others had year-end profits of more than 5 percent.
Cheney has lost money in four of the past five years, according to the analysis. Edinboro lost money in three of the past five years, leading up to painful cost-cutting last fall that laid off 42 professors and eliminated some foreign language programs.
But Edinboro officials believe their circumstances have been “mischaracterized,” said university spokesman Jeff Hileman.
“The university has taken appropriate action to address its challenges. The administration has identified a number of opportunities to strengthen it even further. And we are very excited about the future,” said Hileman.
Steve Hicks, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty, said the Tomlinson plan would effectively destroy the state system as an affordable alternative to Penn State, Pitt and Temple. The union, which represents professors at universities in the state system, is dismissing the bill as the “Student Sellout Act.”
“What students, instead, would have left is a handful of small universities that have limited capacity and mounting financial issues, including a reduction in economies of scale that benefit state system universities,” Hicks told the House Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday.