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RAND Study Proposes Consolidation, Recategorization Of PA's Struggling State Universities

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Clarion University

A new study conducted by the RAND Corporation and commissioned by the Pennsylvania State Legislature suggests drastic changes to the state university system.

Pennsylvania is home to 113 public and private four-year colleges and universities, excluding specialized schools. That's a lot, even for such a populous state, said the study's lead researcher Charles Goldman.

"As a result, there's enhanced competition among these institutions for a shrinking pool of students," he said. 

Fourteen of those 113 schools are state-run, beholden to a state board of governors and the financial support of the state legislature. That system has floundered in recent years, according to RAND, plagued by low enrollment from an aging in-state population that Goldman said will only continue to decline in the next 15 years. There's also limited state funding. 

"The Pennsylvania state legislature provides a relatively low level of funding compared to other states for higher education," Goldman said. "And the appropriations for higher education were cut starting in 2011 after the Great Recession. As a result, the public appropriation has been paying a smaller share of the costs of the system, and students and their families have been paying a larger share."

The study also notes an inefficient governance structure suffocated by partisan politics on the state level, as well as "inflexible labor relations" that have bogged down any staff restructuring. 

RAND found enrollment in the state university system declined 13 percent between 2010 and 2016, and nearly 80 percent of state schools are still operating in a financial deficit. 

At the state legislature's request, RAND has been investigating Pennsylvania's state school system since November, and on Wednesday issued five options for improving the system. 

The first is to keep the current structure, but reallocate state authority. RAND warns that this would be a short-term solution to a long-term problem, but the other four options are more dramatic:

  • Merging state-run colleges and universities in each region of the state, reducing the number more than half from 14 to 5-8
  • Eliminating the state system altogether and re-categorizing universities as state-related
  • Placing all public colleges and universities under the management of the strongest state-related institution
  • Converting state-run schools into branch campuses of other, state-related universities

Those options "may be more difficult to implement, but they are more likely to strengthen financially weak institutions and match staff size to enrollment trends," according to the study. 
Most of the options rely heavily on state-related schools. Like Pennsylvania’s 14 state-run colleges and universities, state-related schools (such as the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University) "receive public funding and offer lower tuition rates for state residents." But unlike state-run schools, state-related schools are not owned or controlled by the state of Pennsylvania, according to Goldman.

Goldman said the state could choose just one of these options, or apply a combination of them. They could be temporary, for 10 years or more, or permanent.

"It's possible, for instance, to retain the state system with some universities in it but have other universities made independent of the state system and placed under [fewer] rules and regulations," Goldman explained. 

RAND does not recommend closing any institutions, he said, though the recommendations all put additional financial pressure on university staff and students.

"We think the current set of institutions has more capacity than is needed to serve the number of students," Goldman said. "Over the long term, it's important that the universities are able to match their staffing size to the amount of enrollment that they have."

A merger could make that process easier, Goldman said, but over time, it would also lead to a reduction of staffing, which could mean faculty layoffs at some or all the 14 institutions. The changes could also result in increased costs for students, and by extension, lower accessibility and enrollment. 

"But we're also concerned that continuation of the current system with potentially further declines in enrollment is going to increase cost pressure, which could make the current costs for tuition go up in the future if nothing is done," he said. 

According to Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, the state's 14 public colleges and universities serve 105,000 students–more than any other higher education institution in Pennsylvania–and employ 12,000 faculty and staff. 

In a press release, the system said RAND's study affirms its internal assessment of continued challenges, but that management is continuing to "redesign" the system on its own.

"We do have serious concerns about some of the recommendations included in the study because of the negative impact they could have on students," said spokesman Kenn Marshall. “The State System should be given the appropriate opportunity to fully realize the outcomes of our strategic, intentional and thoughtful System redesign efforts, which already are showing positive results."

Goldman testified on Wednesday before the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee in Harrisburg. House members were "interested" in the recommended changes, he said.

A joint session of the state Senate and House education committees will review RAND's study at a hearing on Monday. 

Pennsylvania's 14 state-run colleges and universities include:

  • Bloomsberg University 
  • California University
  • Cheyney University
  • Clarion University
  • East Stroudsburg University 
  • Edinboro University
  • Indiana University
  • Kutztown University
  • Lock Haven University
  • Mansfield University
  • Millersville University
  • Shippensburg University
  • Slippery Rock University
  • West Chester University
Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.