Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities badly need fiscal change

For decades, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has been the most financially realistic path to a college education for students in our region.

There needs to be fundamental fiscal change — quickly — for that premise to remain true.

Leaders of the state-owned university system that includes Lock Haven, Shippensburg, Bloomsburg, Kutztown, Mansfield, Indiana, Millersville and Clarion universities — all within approximately a two-hour drive of our region — are promising a transformation amid declining enrollments, rising costs and inadequate state support.

A state House Appropriations Committee budget hearing was held recently as enrollment in the 14 state-owned universities (which also includes Edinboro, California, Slippery Rock, West Chester, Cheyney and East Stroudsburg) fell below 100,000 for the first time since 2001.

It will be difficult to pump that enrollment up by too much given the demographic crunch the schools are enduring as the number of Pennsylvania high school graduates is projected to keep falling.

As for the rising costs, some are unpreventable, but the leaders of the universities have a responsibility to find every penny of savings they can in their budgets, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

The state funding situation is murkier. Pennsylvania’s state support is about half the proportion of the national average for state schools. But it’s unrealistic to expect an 8 percent increase in that funding, which is the PSSHE request.

Gov. Tom Wolf has offered an increase of $7 million, or 1.5 percent.

It would seem a final figure somewhere in the middle, say 5 percent, is the state funding solution for this year.

It would be money well spent if it could keep tuitions from rising too much and make available a college education to a student from Pennsylvania who may not otherwise have that opportunity.

Chancellor Dan Greenstein has warned that the system is close to hitting the tuition increase ceiling. He is probably correct given the premise that the state system is supposed to be a tuition bargain that favors students from families of modest means.

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