State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Lawmakers propose to let state-owned schools peel off

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 10, 2014 6:06 PM
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State lawmakers are set to introduce a bipartisan plan to let the largest schools leave the 14-member Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, amid skepticism from their colleagues and the system's chancellor.

The legislation, not yet introduced, would allow schools with 7,000 students or more to leave PASSHE, which has been seeing declining enrollment at certain schools and rising costs overall.

Supporters say the move would preserve the system while allowing its most successful colleges to continue to grow.

"Part of the problem is that there are less students today graduating high school west of the Susquehanna than there were in the 1950s," said Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester). He later clarified, with the prompting of his colleagues, that he meant the 1990s. "So the student base is not there, and you can't pretend to maintain a structure of another era without the students and without the fiscal resources to do so." Dinniman is introducing the proposal alongside Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R-Bucks).

But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Jay Costa said the plan prompts more questions than it answers: What would be the effect on tuition at other colleges? How, exactly, would schools buy their way out of PASSHE?

"It's a 14-university system that sort of shares the wealth, and as you pull out some of the two largest entities, or one of the largest entities, it has an impact on the system as a whole and individual parts of the system," said Costa.

Other critics include the state system chancellor, Frank Brogan, who told the Philadelphia Inquirer he questions the proposal's effect affordable higher education in the commonwealth.

The plan was made with West Chester University in mind, a school that has surpassed enrollment of all the other state system universities with more than 15,000 students. Dinniman said his intention is to start a discussion about the unsustainability of the state system as it is now.

"I am surprised that Chancellor Brogan doesn't look at this as an opportunity for him to contribute to a dialogue on how to save the system," Dinniman said.

He has a dim view of the likelihood that lawmakers, as an alternative, would support a plan to divest from schools with low-enrollment.

"Whenever we're dealing with issues where something negative has to happen to someone, we never act affirmatively," Dinniman said. "We simply say well, let's just throw more money at the situation and hold harmless the institutions that have problems."

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