“Every bit of this system – as great as it’s been over the years – has to be examined.” That ominous quote from PA State System of Higher Education Chancellor Frank Brogan caught the attention of many people, including me. In short, there is the possibility that some of the state-owned schools will merge or even close. No one knows for sure, but it is clear something has to change.
Full disclosure. I am a Clarion University graduate, Class of 1985. I actually started at Penn State DuBois but decided it would be easier to commute to Clarion than go to Penn State University Park. As a commuter, I didn’t really partake in the campus life, but I was challenged by the education I got and have since turned that education into a successful career as a teacher, among other things.
I was fortunate in the sense that I was under the old GI Bill, so I was able to graduate college without any debt (I wish the same could be said of my master’s degree). Keep in mind, the average cost of going to a public college in the mid-80s was about $4,000 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2006-2007 school year, it topped $14,000. It is even higher now and continues to rise well above the normal rate of inflation because of budget cuts at the state and federal level.
In recent years, the state has consistently cut its appropriations to its colleges. Despite efforts by the Wolf administration to restore some money, funding still lags behind what is needed. This year, the State System Board of Governors requested a $61-million dollar increase in funding. Governor Wolf asked for an $8.9-million dollar increase in his budget, and you can rest assured that figure will be cut by the legislature.
To put this in perspective, the Post-Gazette recently reported that in 1983, the state funded 63 percent of operations at the state-owned schools. That number is now down to 27 percent. The difference has to be made up somewhere, and that somewhere is tuition and fees.
There’s another problem facing colleges – declining enrollment. Since 2010, enrollment has declined by about 12 percent across the system. The situation is much worse at my alma mater, Clarion, where the decline topped 28 percent. Some blame the declining numbers of high school graduates, but I think there’s more to the story. The high cost of a four-year degree has prompted some to look at alternative ways to get a higher education, including looking at careers that can be obtained without as much debt.
Most of the state-owned schools are rural schools, which can also be considered a handicap. They don’t have the power or the prestige of a Penn State, whose branch campuses are in direct competition, or a Pitt or a Temple. Add in the private schools and there’s a lot of colleges vying for a dwindling number of students. The sad part is, with this recent announcement, I expect some high school students to start looking elsewhere for an education because of the uncertainty at the State System, and that will make a difficult situation even worse.
Chancellor Brogan is calling for the hiring of a consulting firm to review the current system and provide suggestions. That will take some time. Whatever suggestions are made, state legislators have to sign off on the proposal and you can bet there will be some very tough in-fighting and lobbying to protect schools in their districts. How could the borough of Clarion survive without the school?
I don’t like what is happening, but I understand why. No one will argue that a higher education isn’t important (and necessary in today’s world). It is obvious, however, that things can’t continue the way they are and that something has to be done. Just what that something is has towns across the state holding their breath.