More Coherent System Needed For 14 State Universities
The state’s 14 universities operate under the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. But new Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, speaking at his installation this week in Harrisburg, made a convincing case that the main challenge facing the troubled system is learning how to truly be a system in practice as well as name. Like those in other states, Pennsylvania’s state universities have struggled for a decade with declining numbers of high school seniors. Enrollment is about 98,000, the lowest in 20 years and down from 120,000 in 2010. The problem is worse in Pennsylvania because the state government provides the third-lowest rate of subsidies of any state public university system nationwide. For two years, parts of the operation have attempted to restructure to deal with declining enrollment amid inadequate state funding. Several of the 14 schools have attempted to set regional, rather than uniform tuition rates, and have juggled course offerings to improve marketing to prospective students. But in the process, as Greenstein noted, the individual universities inevitably compete with one another for a shrinking pool of students. “In a transformed system, our universities stop competing with each other on every dimension, he said. Instead, he proposed using the collective strengths of the entire system to benefit students on every campus. That would include making courses on every campus available online to every student across the system, which would not only increase marketing opportunities but decrease costs for students — many of whom would be able to pursue their majors closer to home rather than across the state. Greenstein also recommended more aggressively pursuing older students, working closely with community colleges and high schools, and examining cross-education possibilities with the four state-affiliated universities — Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln. Average cost still is a great advantage for the state university system. Combining that with greater opportunities by harnessing the power of the system as a whole might indeed put the system on more stable footing. The system board of governors, Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature should support Greenstein as he begins to transform into reality the vision of a more coherent system.