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Penn State expanded its branch campuses decades ago. Now, some say that’s one reason state universities are struggling.

Some say Penn State’s growth may have come at the expense of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — an assertion that Penn State flatly rejects.

Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pa.
Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pa.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania State University shook the state’s already crowded higher-education marketplace in the late 1990s when it added bachelor’s degree programs to its branch campuses, effectively turning what were for many stops on the way to State College into four-year universities.

One higher-education official, in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education at the time, predicted “internecine warfare” between Penn State and other universities competing for students. Since then, programs on those Penn State branches, called Commonwealth campuses, have grown. They offer 108 bachelor’s degrees — 31 added in the last five years.

Some say Penn State’s growth may have come at the expense of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) — an assertion that Penn State flatly rejects and notes there are no studies to support.

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Still, the state system’s recent enrollment struggles that resulted in planned mergers of six universities has some speculating about the impact of that Penn State decision decades ago. In some cases, PASSHE universities and Penn State campuses are in the same or neighboring counties. Penn State Brandywine in Media is about 11 miles from West Chester, the system’s largest university, and less than six miles from its smallest, the historically Black Cheyney University. Penn State Berks is 16 miles from Kutztown. In Western Pennsylvania, California is within about 20 miles of Penn State Fayette.

“They saw a market they could capture and it solidified their political dominance in the state,” said Joni E. Finney, a recently retired director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “They didn’t care about PASSHE, nor about serving the commonwealth. A partnership with PASSHE would have been the best thing in some kind of way.”

Some say PASSHE’s struggles point to a long-standing need for a bipartisan commission to better coordinate higher-education planning and ensure that schools work together in the best interest of students and the state.

“There’s no sort of referee out there saying what are you doing and why,” said Brian C. Mitchell, a higher-education consultant and former Bucknell president. “The solution has to come from somewhere. It’s not going to come from interested parties, like PASSHE or the Penn State system.”

Mitchell was president of Pennsylvania’s Association of Independent Colleges and Universities when Penn State added the bachelor’s degrees; he predicted the “warfare.”

Penn State at the time said it was responding to a larger demand than it could handle at its University Park campus and wanted to offer students opportunities to get a degree at a campus closer to home.

Then-Pennsylvania Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok allowed the expansion to proceed.

Penn State officials continue to defend the move. Provost Nicholas P. Jones said Penn State has added bachelor’s programs to its Commonwealth campuses in areas where there was student demand and labor needs, most recently in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, where there is little program overlap with PASSHE schools.

“We are not looking to compete with them,” Jones said. “We are looking to complement them and make sure higher-education needs in the commonwealth are met.”

A crowded marketplace

Pennsylvania has one of the largest numbers of public and private four-year colleges in the nation. It’s not unique in having both a flagship land-grant university and a separate state system. But Finney points out that Pennsylvania is unusual because its land-grant university created other four-year campuses. Something similar happened in Washington, she said.

“It really hurt the public regionals and it created the same kind of expensive competition,” she said.

Founded in 1855 as one of the nation’s first colleges of agricultural science, Penn State is Pennsylvania’s only land-grant institution, with a sprawling campus in Centre County. In the 1930s, it began adding branch campuses, largely to serve students in their communities during the Depression. Penn State now has 24 campuses, including a law school, medical school, and graduate campus, with more than 97,000 students, nearly half of them at its anchor in University Park. About one-third of students who start their degrees at the 19 Commonwealth campuses finish their degrees there.

With nearly 700,000 alumni, Penn State has a loyal following, a distinctive brand, and considerable political clout, counting 32 of the state’s 253 legislators, including Senate President Jake Corman (R., Centre) and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre and Mifflin) among its attendees.

By contrast, the state system has 14 universities, many in rural areas, enrolling 93,700 students, a 22% decline since 2010. The system was formed in 1983, but its universities are much older. They also are well-represented in the legislature, with 40 senators and representatives having attended.

Many have struggled to hold on to enrollment, especially as the pool of high school graduates has declined and state funding waned, leading to tuition increases that eroded the cost gap between them and competitors.

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Penn State’s Commonwealth campuses haven’t been without challenges, either, and have lost enrollment over the last decade. At a Penn State board meeting in July, trustee Ted Brown suggested that the university add students to the campuses as an alternative to raising tuition.

“They are hidden gems,” Brown said of the Commonwealth campuses, noting that DuBois draws students from as far as Montana and Wyoming for its wildlife technology major. “What I would really like to see is for us to get them back where they were 10 years ago.”

Penn State vs. PASSHE?

Several counselors at area high schools said that they haven’t seen much competition between Penn State branches and PASSHE universities and that they tend to draw different students.

“There are kids who feel Penn State is too big, too expensive, or it’s too far, or they don’t have the academics to get in, so they will look at PASSHE schools,” said Lori Cohen, school counselor and coordinator of the department at Cheltenham High School.

Out of a class of about 350, 12 Cheltenham graduates from 2021 went to Penn State, two-thirds of them to University Park, and 25 went to PASSHE schools, the largest number, 10, to West Chester.

It came down to cost for Samantha Brayton, a recent graduate of Shippensburg, a state university, now in a master’s program at Villanova. A Shippensburg resident, she, like most of her friends, wanted to go to Penn State until she realized she could get her education at much less cost by living at home and attending Shippensburg, where tuition ran $7,716.

“I’m only $10,000 in debt right now,” Brayton said, adding that the education she got was phenomenal.

For Katlin Rooney, 22, Penn State’s Altoona campus ended up being what she needed. Initially, Penn State wasn’t even on her radar. She wanted to go to Syracuse. But she came to realize she wasn’t ready for a big university. The Altoona campus, she said, gave her the foundation she needed, and she transferred to State College for her final two years.

“It was not the plan, but it was the plan I needed to follow,” said Rooney, who graduated in May and landed a job as a broadcast associate at MLB Network.

At the 3,500-student Northeast High in Philadelphia, more students are looking at Penn State than PASSHE universities, said Andrew Dunakin, lead school counselor. Some are attracted to Penn State Abington, where they can take classes and live at home, he said.

Students respond to name brand, and Penn State, Temple, and Drexel have an edge over PASSHE schools with the exception of West Chester, he said.

Christopher Fiorentino, president of West Chester, which has continued to grow and thrive despite market challenges, said Penn State Brandywine and Abington are just two among 80 competitors in the region.

“Can they cut into our market? Sure, he said. “But so does St. Joe’s. So does Temple. So does Drexel. We just need to take care of our business and be a high-value proposition and not look over our shoulders at the competition.”

PASSHE administrators don’t blame Penn State for the system’s woes. Bashar Hanna, lead president for the Bloomsburg-Mansfield-Lock Haven merger, said competition from private colleges that have deeply discounted their costs has been a bigger challenge.

“The part that has hurt PASSHE is our affordability has eroded,” he said.

Tuition, fees, and room and board range from $19,243 at West Chester to $25,714 at Indiana. Those costs top $30,000 at University Park, while tuition costs at Commonwealth campuses are $3,200 to $5,000 less for lower-division, in-state students.

Sam Claster, a sociology professor and faculty union president at Edinboro University in Western Pennsylvania, said he’s more worried about the loss of PASSHE’s affordability advantage than the Penn State Behrend campus 26 miles down the road in Erie.

“Is there a draw from PASSHE to Penn State? I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have that data. Have we lost our competitive financial edge? Certainly, and that’s an absolute problem for the system.”

He would like to see Pennsylvania, which ranks near the bottom of states in per capita funding of higher education, reexamine how it funds colleges. The system for too long has been starved, he said, while Penn State, which is only partially public and has a $4.5 billion endowment, also continues to receive state support.

PASSHE’s state allocation is $477 million, while Penn State gets $324 million, including its subsidies for agricultural research and the college of technology. (PASSHE also got $50 million in stimulus funds this year, with the promise of $150 million more over three years.)

Calls for a new commission

Before the pandemic, a newly created Higher Education Funding Commission composed of state lawmakers from both parties began meeting. But its work was stalled and its deadline for submitting a report extended to May 2022. Calls to several commission members, including cochair State Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh Valley), were not returned.

Ron Cowell, a former state legislator recalled sitting on a similar commission under then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh in the 1980s. They developed a proposal of prioritizing the funding of programs based on assigned value, but nothing happened, he said.

“State government, we, the policymakers, were unwilling to decide what we value more,” said Cowell, executive director of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg. “I’m not optimistic about the willingness of policymakers to make the tough decisions now.”

But Mitchell said it’s critical.

“If they don’t do it, there will be more of the same defensive reactions,” he said. “... and the result will be bad policy.”

Finney favors a citizens task force without a political or institutional stake.

Program mergers and partnerships of Penn State and PASSHE campuses should have been on the table two decades ago — and now, she said. It might take a change in law and lots of political capital, but it’s worth considering, she said.

“We have so many four-year public institutions now, with a declining population and we have a whole private sector trying to compete,” she said. “I don’t think the problems of PASSHE can be solved within PASSHE. They are really statewide.”

Staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.