State funding and enrollment declines create challenges for universities in the Pennsylvania State System

Published by adviser, Author: Daniel DiFabio - News Editors, Date: February 3, 2017
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Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education’s (PASSHE) Chancellor Frank Brogan addressed the state system last week, saying that 2017 would be an important event in the state system’s history, with many universities struggling.

“We will be taking a hard look at how we are organized today, and how we need to be organized in the future in order to continue to serve our students and the Commonwealth as its public university system,” Brogan said, according to a press release from PASSHE. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to do it. We are the people who have to have the courage to step up and sound the clarion call for change.”

Spokesman for the state system Kenn Marshall said that current funding from the state is about 60 million dollars less than what the system received prior to the recession in 2008. Marshall said that enrollment has also declined for six straight years.

The only universities to see an increase in enrollment are Westchester, Slippery Rock and Cheyney, Marshall said.

“Slippery Rock is an exception (to the declining enrollment),” Marshall said. “Slippery Rock has been able to build enrollment which is pretty remarkable given the demographic situation they’re facing along with the other schools.”

Marshall said that the Board of Governors has submitted an appropriation request of 61 million dollars to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, which still has to be approved.

“It’s going to be extremely challenging to get an increase, certainly an increase in the amount we’re asking for,” Marshall said.

Marshall said that Brogan has been advocating for more state funding, spending a lot of time at the capitol. Marshall said there is also an advocacy day that is upcoming that involves students.

“We frankly don’t view it as an expensive,” Marshall said. “We view it as an investment.”

Marshall said that the state system’s most recent economic impact study shows that for every one dollar received from the state, 11 dollars are generated in economic activity.

“We will argue very aggressively for the need for additional funding from the state,” Marshall said. “We will certainly make the argument that it’s needed, it’s necessary, and that it’s a very good investment for Pennsylvania.”

A lot of news outlets reported that the chancellor had mentioned closures and mergers of universities, but Marshall said the chancellor never mentioned that but simply that if a study, conducted by a consulting firm, recommends it as an option that it cannot be ruled out.

“We’re not considering it now,” Marshall said. “The point the chancellor wanted to drive home was we need to go into this study eyes wide open considering every possibility. We can’t exclude or take anything off the table.”

Marshall said it could take some time for a study to be conducted, with the state system currently having accepting proposals from firms.

“We would like to see something done by the end of the year or at least some decisions made by the end of the year,” Marshall said. “It’s not something that is going to happen overnight but there is a sense of urgency because of the budget situation that a lot of our universities are facing.”

Logan Steigerwalt, Slippery Rock Government Association President, also commented on the news of challenges the state system is facing.

“I read about it in an online article on Facebook about the possibility of schools closing down and merging,” Steigerwalt said. “Literally and hour and a half later I had a call with all the other Presidents of the BSGP,  and we just talked about that with the chancellor who came on the call for a bit. He said that it was a possibility and nothing is in motion yet.”

Steigerwalt said he doubts this will apply to SRU since the enrollment has gone up, but he can feel for other schools.

“We’re in a good place in my opinion,” Steigerwalt said. “There won’t be anything shut down here, we’ve had increasing enrollment each year. Other schools will have to do some mixing and mingling around to make things work.”

Enrollment has been going down statewide, but no plan is set in stone yet for some state schools, Steigerwalt said. At one point enrollment was close to 120,000 students, and this year it’s around 105,000, Steigerwalt said.

“My first reaction was shocked and surprised to see this potentially happen,” Steigerwalt said.

Ben Shaevitz, SRU physics professor and APSCUF chapter president, said he wasn’t surprised after reading the press release, and that the talk of the study had come up in the past. Shaevitz said that he was pleased with APSCUF President Kenneth Mash’s response. Shaevitz said he hopes that APSCUF is involved, along with students.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll [the study] be done with integrity and that it’s not just going to be a political witch hunt,” Shaevitz said. “That it’ll be a real authentic analysis and the results will be based upon the data and not have this political undertone with it.”

The original press release can be viewed on PASSHE’s website.

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