Title

Revamp Governance but Don’t Close Universities, Pennsylvania System Told

July 13, 2017
 
 

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education should not close, merge or spin off any of its 14 state-owned universities, according to a much-awaited set of consultants’ recommendations presented to its Board of Governors Wednesday.

But the recommendations did call for wide-ranging changes to the way the system is governed and higher education policy in Pennsylvania. The state should amend the system’s founding legislation to replace its Board of Governors with a Board of Regents and change its governance structure to revamp the relationships between university leaders and system leaders, according to recommendations.

Notably, the recommendations also called for Pennsylvania to create a statewide entity to coordinate policy and make funding recommendations across postsecondary institutions. No such entity exists currently, leading to criticism that the state does not pursue a consistent strategy across its many higher education institutions. In addition to the PASSHE system, Pennsylvania also has state-related institutions like Pennsylvania State University and a scattered set of local community colleges.

“The way the system is now structured and the way decision authority is allocated does not work when you’re faced with the current set of challenges,” said Dennis Jones, the president emeritus of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, the firm that created the recommendations after months of review. Jones delivered a presentation on the firm’s findings to the Board of Governors Wednesday. A full report will be available next week.

Jones delivered an at times blistering assessment of the state system, first laying out how it is under intense pressure from falling enrollment and constrained state support. Enrollment varies from campus to campus, but across the system, enrollment has gone up among students from high-income families, remained relatively stable for students from low-income families and dropped for students from middle-income families. The system enrolls a large number of students from low-income families and is in many cases their primary college option.

“You can’t keep raising tuition to cover the gap because students’ ability to pay just isn’t there, and more importantly it’s going to be easy to reach the point where you drive down enrollment,” Jones said.

Pennsylvania’s population trends make it clear that the number of high school graduates is expected to shrink. Yet the system has not cut expenditures to keep up with revenue that is no longer increasing. It has also largely ignored adult students.

“In this state, the mind-set very much is that college is for recent high school graduates, and everything you do, particularly your institutions, focuses on residential full-time high school graduates,” Jones said. “That’s a culture in your institutions, and it constrains in many ways your ability to do anything different.”

Other recommendations include changing the focus of the system’s Office of the Chancellor, reconfiguring universities -- possibly with a consortium model geared toward sharing system resources -- adopting a strategic financing model, striking better collective bargaining agreements in the future, committing to a shared governance process with faculty, and considering offering early retirement incentives to allow institutions to adjust staffing levels to match enrollment. Some of those changes would require legislative approval.

Closing or merging institutions within Pennsylvania’s state system has long been discussed. Officials referenced the possibility when they announced the strategic review that NCHEMS carried out and presented Wednesday. The proposition is difficult, however, in part because many of the institutions are isolated geographically. Those that are financially weakest also enroll students who are members of underserved populations or who would not have other local college options in Pennsylvania’s unbalanced patchwork of college campuses.

The president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, a union representing faculty members and coaches in the state system, called the recommendations "a bit vague" in a statement. Union leaders were to meet with the NCHEMS team Wednesday night.

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