Is It Time to Break Up the PASSHE System?

By Leah Fleischel, Moon News Cloud Contributor

As universities public and private across the country struggle to meet enrollment numbers, replenish their endowments and seemingly ever-changing missions, some public universities in Pennsylvania are debating something else —  independence from state funding.
A plan is undergoing review in the Pennsylvania Senate that would allow some universities within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) to break free if they have a 7,000 student enrollment, the means to purchase their property from the state, and an outside audit opinion that deems the institution financially stable.
The plan is getting the strongest support from West Chester University, near Philadelphia, which had $1.6 million taken away from it to help other struggling state universities.
Schools would not be entirely free from the state, but rather become “state-related,” much like Temple, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh are. Naturally, the independence would likely come with a cost to students and families. Residents of Pennsylvania pay $6,622 in tuition for one year at a state-system school but closer to $15,000 at Temple, for example.
Keeping school affordable is the priority of many students, and Kutztown University’s student government president is worried that the new plan will prevent that. Nicholas Imbesi wants school to remain affordable in Pennsylvania.
“This is just another way to move towards privatization which will only hurt our students. We need to invest in PASSHE and out students, not abandon them.” said Imbesi.
Other universities that could be eligible based on enrollment alone include Slippery Rock University, California University of Pennsylvania, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and nine others.
State Senator Andrew Dinniman, who is a West Chester University trustee, hopes that the plan kick starts the system from its relatively stagnant ways with keeping up with academic needs.
“By forcing legislation that requires hearings and debate, we’ll finally deal with this,” Dinniman said. “That’s our hope.”
What is good for one is not always good for all, even if the school is eligible to break away. Though Governor Tom Corbett’s track record with the education system in the state leaves a less than satisfactory taste in many resident’s mouths, he made his opposition to this idea strongly known.
Corbett called the plan a “mistake” and said that if the functioning of the state school system is the concern, then it should be dealt with rather than schools leaving the system. However, he also proposes and passes many plans that cut funds from the education systems in Pennsylvania.
Funding is a main problem, as the system is facing a $61-million deficit despite $143-million coming from the state and a 3 percent tuition hike from the current year.
“I want to improve the system. I think the system needs some work. I think we have a train wreck coming financially. I think we have to do something about that,” said Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, who proposed the plan on March 12.
The plan also would give more than just financial freedom to schools; they would be able to set their own tuition, select their now president, and make their own program decisions independently. As of now, the system’s governing board makes all decisions for the universities.
The proposal will be heard by the Senate Education Committee on April 8.