‘Higher education is a partnership’: Pa. State System approves $550M request to help with redesign

‘We have met every single demand that was made of us, and we will continue to do that,’ state System Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said. ‘But our progress now relies upon a different kind of compact with the state. Public higher education is a partnership’

By: - October 15, 2021 2:17 pm

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Daniel Greenstein testifies before the Senate Appropriations and Education committees on July 20, 2021 (screenshot).

If you ask Chancellor Daniel Greenstein whether the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has made good on its promise to invest in schools and meet student needs as it rolls out the most transformative restructuring in the system’s 38-year history, he will say yes.

“We have met every single demand that was made of us, and we will continue to do that,” Greenstein told the system’s Board of Governors on Thursday. “But our progress now relies upon a different kind of compact with the state. Public higher education is a partnership.”

Former state House Speaker Sam Smith, who serves on the board, advised Greenstein to be prepared to back that statement up if he plans to tell lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

And eventually, Greenstein will have to make his case before the General Assembly. That’s because the State System’s governing board approved a request for the largest appropriation in its history, $550 million, to continue efforts to restructure the 14-university system. 

He’s scheduled to appear before the Senate Appropriations and Education committees later this month to give an update on the state-owned system, which is merging six of its schools into two regional campuses. The Board of Governors unanimously voted in July to consolidate Clarion, California, and Edinboro, in western Pennsylvania, and Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg in the northeast.

And this week, state System officials met to discuss redesign and next steps to reform public higher education in Pennsylvania.

“We’re setting the stage to say that we need and we want partnership,” board Chairperson Cindy Shapira said. “We’ve got to go now to the next level, and I think that’s what really this stage setting is all about.”

With a phased implementation process, consolidation begins in the fiscal year 2022-23, but plans for redesign began years ago. It’s the result of sagging enrollment and rising tuition costs. 

The state System plans to use $25.1 million from the State Employees Retirement System savings and a $200 million commitment to be paid in $50 million installments from one-time funds for redesign, diversity and inclusion, debt relief, and workforce-aligned programs.

Greenstein, a vocal advocate for the merger, said consolidation would help the university system survive and provide affordable, quality in-state education. But integration was just the beginning of State System reform, officials said during months of contentious debate.

The state System froze tuition for the past three years to help with affordability and increase student aid. Greenstein estimated that the tuition freeze and additional financial assistance have reallocated $180 million in operating money “in support of our students” each year.

Staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures have resulted in a $173 million decrease, Greenstein said. But the cost for students is not going down, resulting in declining enrollment and statewide workforce shortages, he added.

Enrollment in the state System this fall is down 5.4 percent. According to Greenstein, the decrease is pandemic-related. However, this marks the 12th consecutive year where enrollment has declined. 

Student recruitment and retention are top priorities for the state System, but additional funds could help increase student opportunities while keeping education affordable, Greenstein added. If Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature grant the $550 million, the state System could also refrain from raising tuition another year.

“We’re basically pricing our people out of higher education,” Greenstein told the board. “So consistently, Pennsylvanians’ enrollment in higher education falls further and further behind the national averages. It’s too expensive, and so people aren’t going. And, we’re losing more students annually to higher education institutions in other states where they can get a lower price.”

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