Slippery Rock University hosted a meet and greet with a Pennsylvania State Senator on March 31 in the Russel Wright Alumni House.
Senator Scott Hutchinson came from Oil City to discuss financing the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) with President William Behre and students.
“Historically, Pennsylvania state government has sort of slipped down in the percentage of cost of running these institutions,” Hutchinson said. “Our support has not been where it should have been.”
Pennsylvania is currently ranked 49th in higher education funding per capita ahead of only New Hampshire.
“Our contractual obligations alone next year will go up, so that’s the dilemma we’re in as an institution,” Behre said.
SRU has two primary sources of revenue: tuition and the allocation.
SRU is typically allocated $43 million from the education budget. This year, it received $41 million due to the formula being skewed toward struggling schools.
The Pennsylvania Board of Governors has also not raised tuition in three years. That freeze will continue into the 2022-2023 academic year, with the board’s approval Thursday.
Despite financial worries, administrators at SRU said they are still committed to serving its students and has been investing in student mental health and financial aid.
A deep dive into the PASSHE tuition costs reveals that SRU has the second lowest tuition behind West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Despite being in the same state system, each university has different fees and award structures.
Behre brags that financial aid has increased by millions since he arrived.
“We can’t support the students at that level with our current revenue structure,” he said.
SRU’s shocking history also explains Behre’s devotion to student mental health.
“My first 16 months here, we had three student suicides,” he said. “I’ll run a deficit budget before I cut mental health.”
SRU and other state schools now face the challenge of providing a quality, affordable education with limited funding.
Along with state-funded schools in Pennsylvania, the state is also home to private universities and state-affiliated schools such as Pennsylvania State University.
“In my opinion, as a state senator, the state system should be first,” Hutchinson said.
The state system was designed to reach students in communities who would never have thought about higher education because no one in their family went to college. An individual may feel more welcome at a university grounded in or near their community.
These universities also provide financial stability to the communities they are grounded in by providing secure employment. Only one SRU employee was terminated during COVID-19.
Stabilizing the state system started with stabilizing the weakest schools such as Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and Clarion University of Pennsylvania that are having the most trouble with enrollment and budgeting. Other than funding, PASSHE hopes specializations and variety can also help strengthen schools.
“The way to strengthen PASSHE is to have different schools have different flavors so that we’re not in direct competition,” Behre said.
The majority of SRU’s workforce development is in degree-granting programs, physician assistant programs and physical therapy programs. The university also has expanded its health sciences and engineering programs.
When talking with system leadership, SRU turned down money and instead opted to send it to Clarion and Edinboro to bolster other types of workforce development such as badging, credentialing and sub-baccalaureate certifications, Behre said.
West Chester also turned down money for schools in the East. SRU will help further by not expanding undergraduate online programs.
“I think people feel comfortable that a direction was set for those weak sister [schools], so now we feel more comfortable putting money into the system,” Hutchinson said.
For Behre, that means leaning in to a typical college experience most high school students envision when looking for a college.
“We’ll focus on what you consider the more traditional college mode and not compete with the other schools,” Behre said. “Let’s give them a different niche.”
SRU also currently holds the highest four-year graduation rate in PASSHE. That keeps costs for families down by eliminating the possibility of a fifth year, or “the greatest hidden cost of college,” Behre said.
Slippery Rock’s academic record is also “a bit stronger than some of the other schools,” according to Behre, which allows admissions to be more selective. Before adding new students, they think about how many will make it to their sophomore year and beyond.
Approximately 30% of SRU’s student population are also first-generation students who have no experience in paying for college, breaking down budgets and mitigating hidden fees.
“In a tight budget meeting, the conversation we have is ‘Should we lower our standards to get a few more students to meet the budgetary,'” Behre said. “We’ve made the decision not to at this point, and it’s a decision I stand behind.”
Various plans for funding are also being proposed.
PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein proposed a historic increase in funding from around $475 million to around $550 million, which would put Pennsylvania closer to the middle of the education funding rankings.
Governor Tom Wolf also proposed a bill that includes a historic education overhaul, but that is only one part of it.
The bill would be funded by leftover federal money from COVID-19, but the conservative legislature worries that money will eventually run out leaving more programs underfunded.
“Most legislators agree that that we’ve got to step up to the plate for higher state system schools,” Hutchinson said. “And we’re willing to do that, but most are not willing to do all that other stuff.”
Students can advocate for funding to the state higher education system by contacting and meeting with their local legislators to share their stories.
“Legislators work in numbers and it’s really important to put faces to those numbers so that they understand a bit more emotionally who the people are that they’re serving and the impact of the funding,” Behre said.
Behre also believes in planning for the worst-case scenario of cutting financial aid and limiting the number of incoming students but insists it will never come to that.
“We’re going to stick to our mission, but it could end up being a slightly different mission than we have today just because of money,” he said.