PASSHE faces tough decisions

Pennsylvania taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to continue supporting colleges that are virtually a shell of what they should be, when other options exist for their students.

However, taxpayers of this state continue to financially prop up Cheyney and Mansfield state universities — two of the schools of the 14-member Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — despite big declines in enrollment.

For the 2017-18 academic year, Cheyney, which is near Philadelphia and in close proximity to another PASSHE school, West Chester State University, had only 723 undergraduate students and 32 graduate students. West Chester’s total 2017-18 head count of 17,336 consisted of 14,481 undergraduate and 2,855 graduate students.

Meanwhile, Mansfield, in Tioga County, was home to 1,897 students — 1,836 enrolled as undergraduates and just 61 enrolled in graduate studies, while Lock Haven State Unversity in Clinton County, just a couple of counties away, had a total head count of 3,827 students — 3,472 undergraduate and 355 graduate.

The following are 2017-18 total-enrollment figures for the other 10 PASSHE schools:

Indiana, 12,316; Bloomsburg, 9,287; Slippery Rock, 8,895; Kutztown, 8,329; California, 7,788; Millersville, 7,748; East Stroudsburg, 6,742; Shippensburg, 6,681; Edinboro, 5,575; and Clarion, 5,225.

PASSHE officials say they already have begun redesigning the system as a result of a review conducted last year by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

But a RAND Corporation study, conducted under the auspices of the state General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, outlines other options for PASSHE that could become fodder for debate as lawmakers work on the commonwealth’s 2018-19 budget.

The RAND recommendations, released last month, include:

– Consolidating the current 14 universities into a number ranging from five to eight.

– Turning the PASSHE universities into branch campuses of state-related universities Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln.

– Placing the PASSHE under the umbrella of one of the large state-related universities.

– Converting PASSHE to state-related universities from the current state-owned status.

– Change PASSHE’s governing system to free the universities from state procurement and construction requirements.

A sixth possibility has been suggested by Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Foundation for Public Policy, a conservative think tank: changing the universities so they specialize in specific academic fields where they can achieve a reputation that would generate student interest.

Regarding the RAND branch-campus and “umbrella” proposals, it’s important to consider the potential negative financial impacts on the state-related universities that would be the center of either of those changes.

Besides PASSHE enrollment having declined 13 percent between 2010-16, the system was hit by 10 years of state aid cuts. State financial support as part of the total system budget declined to 21 percent from 29 percent from 2006-16.

In his annual budget address in February, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $15 million — 3.3 percent — PASSHE funding increase, a proposal contingent on the Legislature’s concurrence.

Then, not to be forgotten are the political implications tied to any changes affecting the system, especially closings, which would adversely affect local economies.

PASSHE faces numerous uncertainties, but the taxpayers’ best interests cannot be ignored.