PASSHE’s fate boils down to five paths

A state-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation provided five possibilities for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities to combat the issues of rising tuition and falling enrollment rates.

The study offered these options: keep broad state system structure, including current individual universities, but with improvements; keep broad state system structure with improvements accompanied by regional mergers of universities; merge state system universities and convert to state-related status; place the state system under the management of a state-related university; merge state system universities into state-related universities, according to the study.

Under the first option, universities would modify the governance structure so that institutions will be freed from some requirements such as procurement and construction. This would allow authority to be more balanced across the system levels. 

The second option would consolidate the 14 state system schools together to a smaller number such as 5–8. Weaker institutions within each region will merge with institutions that are fiscally viable. Some universities may not be merged because they have strong enrollment and financial prospects. This option would also come with a modified governance structure like the first option.

The third option would eliminate the state system entirely and convert the universities to state-related status. This option would only be available to stronger universities or weaker universities that have merged with stronger ones. 

The fourth option would have the entire state system and its institutions managed by a large state-related university such as Penn State University or the University of Pittsburgh. The state system institutions would still receive state support, and labor union relations and faculty contracts would continue. The significant change in this option would be in governance and operations, according to the study. 

The fifth option is similar to the fourth option, but the entire state system and its universities would merge with one or more of the state-related universities, according to the study. 

“It seems likely that tuition and fee rates at the state system campuses would rise to levels similar to the state-related branch campuses, potentially worsening affordability for Pennsylvania families if institutional financial aid is not also increased. Under this option, the current universities’ sovereign immunity would be lost,” the study said.

Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), released a statement about the study.

“There is a crisis in public higher education in this commonwealth, and one does not have to pay $250,000 for a study to see it. But the commonwealth did pay that amount, and Rand made no recommendation to address this reality,” Mash said.

The study’s recommendations would increase the cost of tuition for students, and would severely reduce opportunities for those who can afford tuition. The study also used interviews about the state system and presented opinions as facts. It also did not compare its recommendations to what other states have done, and there is no sourcing to any of the research, according to Mash.

“It appears these recommendations are made solely to placate those who wanted the study,” Mash said.

PASSHE Interim Chancellor Karen Whitney offered comments about the study in a PASSHE press release.

“The state system is focused on doing the hard work necessary to redesign itself to be less bureaucratic and more student-focused,” Whitney said. “There is no instant solution. Instead, it will take intentional, persistent and strategic change, and that is exactly what we’re doing.”

PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said the study validates the efforts of PASSHE to ensure long-term stability of the system and its universities.

“We do have serious concerns about some of the recommendations included in the study because of the negative impact they could have on students,” Marshall said.

The state systems believes it would be misguided to take such dramatic options that would be costly to students and their families without many benefits, according to the press release. 

“We must keep our focus on what really matters to students and their families — affordability and access to relevant academic programs. We must create additional academic opportunities — not limit them — so that we can continue to prepare students for success in their lives and careers,” Marshall said.

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