Lawmakers skeptical on integration plan
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania House lawmakers expressed wariness over a cost-saving measure to consolidate six state-run universities into two.
The plan focuses on combining administration, academics, faculty and staff at Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities in the north and California, Clarion and Edinboro universities in the west. The integrated schools would also share budgets and operate as single accredited institutions, but the individual campuses would stay open.
The integration is part of a larger $100 million redesign of the 14 universities operated by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. In June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that gives PASSHE’s board the authority to reshape the system in the face of declining enrollment.
But lawmakers on Monday worried about the economic impacts of the plan – such as how the integrated campuses might siphon enrollment from the stand-alone institutions and what it might mean for the surrounding communities. Chancellor Dan Greenstein could offer few specifics about how the integrated schools would function, telling the Education and Appropriations committees at a joint hearing that the process had only just begun.
“I think integrated schools will help the system diversify it’s offerings so it can better serve, as a system, the needs of the state,” he said.
Enrollment at 12 of the 14 state-run universities has declined 31 percent over the last decade, Greeinstein noted, and combined with dwindling state funding, the system turned toward students to make up the difference.
“We cannot continue to heap the burden of excessive costs onto our students,” he said. “That’s not fair.”
While lawmakers agree on that point, a philosophical divide still exists over the source of PASSHE’s financial woes – decades of mismanagement or chronic state underfunding.
“If we had fully funded the PASSHE school system, we may be in a different place,” said Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin. “We cannot say we want a high quality affordable education for our students and give them the bare minimum and hope that it will work.”
Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, criticized the rate at which PASSHE increased its tuition, arguing it’s far above inflation because of 20-plus years of mismanagement.
“It’s not serving low and middle income students anymore,” he said. “If private institutions can do that and our state system cannot, blaming it on money is not the issue.”
Greenstein, who appealed to both the House and Senate Appropriations committees in February for a $20 million, five-year funding boost, said both issues are true – and he needs lawmakers to realize it.
“We will need support from this body to get ourselves through to the future the commonwealth needs,” he said. “And we will need support from this body to enable us to engage in the very difficult and essential and necessary restructuring and refocusing. Neither of those things are sufficient to achieve our objectives by themselves.”
Greenstein will appear before the Senate Education and Appropriations committees Wednesday to give the same quarterly update on the redesign efforts. PASSHE’s board expects to receive a full-fledged integration plan by April 2021.