When Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, asked the state for a 2% funding boost last year, he got criticism from union leaders who said that was far from enough to help the struggling colleges.
But Greenstein maintained that the system and its universities first had to cut their staffs commensurate with the decline in enrollment and set the universities on a more sustainable path for growth.
With both those initiatives well underway, including a plan to merge six of its 14 universities into two, Greenstein said the time has come to ask the state for more — a lot more.
He told the system’s board of governors at their meeting Thursday that he plans to seek a 15% boost in state funding, raising the system’s annual allocation from $477 million to $550 million.
And, he also said he will advocate for the state to provide another $201 million for student financial aid in an attempt to make education more affordable for students in need, and $30 million to $40 million for universities’ debt relief.
Pennsylvania is currently near the bottom of states in higher education funding, and the overall funding boost would move it to about average, Greenstein said.
“I can stand behind the data, put my hand on my heart with integrity, and say yes, this is what it costs ... to run this system at or near peak efficiency,” Greenstein said in an interview before the meeting.
The average cost of attendance at state system schools in 2020-21 ranged from $19,243 at West Chester to $25,714 at Indiana.
The 15% boost would be in addition to the one-time $200 million the legislature promised the system over the next few years — it got the first $50 million this year — to help implement its merger plan.
The additional money from the new requests, Greenstein said, would allow the system to keep tuition flat for the fourth straight year and cover the system’s 2% or so inflationary costs. It’s the largest funding boost he has sought since becoming chancellor in 2018.
The state board of governors — comprising legislators, business people, alumni and three students — unanimously approved the funding asks, with one abstention from State Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), who said he had a conflict of interest in that he would be dealing with funding requests as chair of the Senate education committee and member of the appropriations committee. The funding requests drew little discussion or questions from the 18 board members in attendance and got the approval of the other three Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the board.
“I am supporting this absolutely because of the direct support to students,” said State Rep. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery). “We need to do whatever we can as a Commonwealth to assist them with the uncompetitive level of tuition that we’ve been forced to put on them.”
Jamie Martin, president of the faculty union, was pleased to hear the amount the system would seek.
“I wish it would have occurred sooner,” she said, adding that if the state had kept up with inflationary increases, the system would be getting $750 million. “But I think any investment in our students is a step toward making college more affordable for them.”
The asks come as the system this week announced another decline in enrollment, its biggest one-year drop in more than a decade. The 88,651-student system has lost nearly 26% of enrollment since 2010. Greenstein noted that the system has cut about $180 million out of its operating budget and employs about 19% fewer faculty since he arrived.
In preparation for asking the state to make a bigger investment, system officials released a report Wednesday that showed 63% of its graduates from Pennsylvania remain in the state a decade later, earning a median income of $54,708.
Three out of four students from underrepresented minority groups who were from the lowest-income homes were doing better financially 10 years after graduation, showing the importance of education in advancing social mobility, system officials said.
Looking at graduates from all groups after 10 years, there’s just over an $8,700 gap between those who came in from families in the lowest income bracket to those who came from families earning more than $150,000.
“That kind of mobility is not easily found,” Greenstein said.
The board also this week heard an update on its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. A third-party vendor will administer the first systemwide climate survey in January to students, faculty and staff, attempting to gauge how different groups experience the universities, said Denise Pearson, vice chancellor and chief DEI officer.
“This is an important first step toward improving campus climates,” she said.
The system also plans to hold a virtual diversity summit Nov. 3-5, for which more than 700 have already registered, she said.
Also at the board meeting, the system unveiled the new name for the three universities — Clarion, California and Edinboro — to be merged in the west: Pennsylvania Western University, Penn West for short. All three will retain their campuses and will be known as Penn West at Clarion, Penn West at California and Penn West at Edinboro.