Pennsylvania's state university system, the commonwealth's best option for an affordable higher education, is in a bind. The system is looking at a $61 million deficit, tuition hikes, declining enrollment, and flat state funding after years of cuts.
A bill to allow its stronger campuses to secede, sponsored by State Sens. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks), should be taken as a wake-up call for the entire 112,000-student system. A shake-up would be preferable to a breakup.
West Chester University, which has been growing while some of the other schools have shrunk, wants to declare its independence for some good reasons. The state assessed it an additional $1.6 million this year to subsidize the rest of the struggling system. West Chester's plans to open a Philadelphia campus with another system school, Cheyney University, were usurped by the state. Like the other state universities, it can't hire its own president. And it faces a lengthy process to add or cut programs; the state took three years to approve its doctoral program in nursing.
The breakup bill would allow West Chester and eight other schools to leave the 14-college system. The campuses rightly argue that the state has been slow to respond to changing academic needs and enrollment.
System Chancellor Frank Brogan worries that a breakup would hurt the smaller schools, and he's probably right. But with declining enrollments and little state aid, those schools are already in trouble. Brogan also warns that seceding universities would have trouble emulating "state-related" schools such as Temple, which have larger enrollments, endowments, and tuitions.
Brogan says the system is adjusting to change and allowing campuses to experiment. The system's Edinboro University, in Erie County, recently won approval to lower out-of-state tuition so it could draw students from nearby Ohio. It's also offering two-year degrees because there is no community college in the area. Clarion University was allowed to charge more for its nursing program.
These are good moves, but not good enough if West Chester and other schools still feel stifled. The state must encourage more creativity and flexibility at these essential public institutions. The universities should be able to offer programs that prepare students for the careers that will exist when they graduate.
More than a year ago, Gov. Corbett appointed a higher-education commission whose report has received little attention. Local legislators' concerns should be heard now, not after another study that's likely to gather dust.
Dinniman says the system must react more nimbly to change, adding that "change is a great teacher, but no one wants to take its class." He's right. It's time for the system to learn from West Chester's restlessness.