When a company distributes pink slips, it sometimes says that it is “the right size” their company, if only because it seems much less harsh and more forward-looking than saying that they send part of their workers out of work.
So, even if the term “the right size” has the nasty stench of corporate jargon surrounding it, that’s a pretty apt description of what the Pennsylvania State Higher Education System (PASSHE) has been up to over the past two years. Faced with declining enrollment that shows no signs of going the other way any time soon, the system has combined six of its 14 campuses, with the University of California, Pennsylvania joining Edinboro and Clarion universities to become the Western University of Pennsylvania starting next summer. The other three campuses combined – Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University and Mansfield University – have yet to receive a new moniker.
Alumni, students, faculty, and staff have all expressed concern over the loss of each campus’ academic identity and programs, among many other concerns. But by combining the campuses — “the right size” them — seems to have been the best option available.
With 30,000 fewer students on PASSHE campuses over the past decade, public universities have long struggled with declining state support, both in Pennsylvania and across the country. If you were lucky enough to attend a public college or university in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, you might have been able to graduate without racking up any debt. However, as lawmakers in many states have cut funding for higher education, tuition costs borne by American students and their families have risen more than 200% since the late 1980s. Specifically, the cost attendance at a PASSHE institution over the past decade has increased by 50%. As Cynthia Shapira, Chair of the Board of PASSHE, pointed out, this high price “puts a degree from the state system out of reach for many low- and middle-income families.”
This goes against one of the main goals of PASSHE – to make higher education affordable for more people.
Governor Tom Wolf recently proposed in his budget speech that PASSHE schools receive a $550 million, or 15%, increase in funding in the 2022-23 budget. That wouldn’t propel Pennsylvania to the top spot in public school funding, but it would at least get it out of the bottom five. More than a matter of pride, however, it would represent a much-needed investment in the state’s public universities.
Marc Steir, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, noted a few years ago that if the Commonwealth increased funding for higher education, it would see higher wages, higher gross state product and income of the higher state, “and this is the virtuous circle of investing in higher education.”
With a labor shortage and constant demand for skilled workers, investing in higher education must be one of Pennsylvania’s top priorities.