Commentary: PASSHE schools must work together to save the state system
After more than a decade of dropping enrollment rates in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) it is time for drastic actions to be taken to save the state system from disintegrating.
Cost-saving measures have been in place for years at the 14 PASSHE universities. They include everything from moving more classes to an online setting to reducing how often the grass gets mowed. Cutting costs are hardly even a stopgap measure to keep the state system solvent. It only serves to buy administrators time to figure out long-term ways to maintain the current structure of PASSHE.
That structure may no longer be feasible. When PASSHE was established in 1983, there were already concerns about the relationships each university would have with each other, according to a Slate article in a 1980 edition. There is a need to revisit those conversations and concerns to see if the system needs to be restructured.
The current model was made as universities were increasing enrollment, and it helped manage and foster growth across the state. The same model cannot be expected to work when enrollment begins to plummet.
From 2007 to 2016, PASSHE enrollment fell by nearly 6,000 people. This accounts for millions of dollars PASSHE did not get. At the same time funding from the Pennsylvania legislature sharply fell by $65 million over the last decade, but in the past few years it began to climb again. As the dust settles, PASSHE is still short by about $24 million from its 2008-09 funding level.
It makes sense. Lower enrollment rates mean less funding. The problem starts because cutting expenses is not simple. Nobody wants to layoff faculty and staff members, or cut administrative positions or close academic departments. Many universities, like Shippensburg University, compromised and did not fill positions once they were vacant instead of forcibly cutting positions.
Reducing costs are not good enough under the current model. PASSHE needs to restructure itself for a new era. Currently each university acts overwhelmingly independent, meaning resources are rarely shared. As enrollment continues to fall then supplies and personnel to operate academic departments continue to drop and thus the quality of education is under threat.
Instead of each university trying to maintain their long list of majors and departments, they should begin reducing some of the majors to minors, and in rare cases, cutting them completely. Exposing students to a wide variety of courses is essential for a well-rounded education, but that does not mean universities need to offer a bachelor’s degree or more in as many fields as possible.
It’s simply not sustainable as enrollment drops. The new PASSHE model should not treat universities as independent schools, but as a network of schools that should collaborate on how to best invest its resources. University leaders should decide what programs and fields their university should specialize in and what programs should be reduced so they offer minors and general education classes.
In other words, academic resources are being spread so thin that the quality of education will suffer despite the best efforts of a devoted faculty. Consolidating those resources can turn two mediocre departments into one high-quality department.
With careful planning, the new model would not need to rely on ever-increasing enrollment rates to ensure the viability of the system, affordable tuition and high-quality education.