No doubt students and their parents were ecstatic recently when all 11 members of the board of governors for Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities voted to freeze tuition for next year.
It was the first time in 20 years that the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE) held the line on a tuition increase and only the second tuition freeze since the system was established 36 years ago.
PSSHE comprises 14 universities, including Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.
Basic tuition for in-state undergraduate students will remain at $7,716 for the 2019-20 school year. The freeze comes on the heels of a 2 percent increase for PASSHE in the recently passed state budget.
However, it remains to be seen if the freeze will do anything to help the plummeting enrollment at the universities. The system’s enrollment peaked at 112,000 in 2011 but has dropped by 18 percent since then. Enrollment was about 100,000 this past fall.
The fact is that PSSHE faces some daunting demographic challenges in its bid to increase enrollment. According to a study by the RAND Corp., which was commissioned by the state Senate, most of the state-system universities serve a local area and draw students from surrounding counties. But it pointed out that 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will experience declines in traditional college-age students over the next 10 years, ranging from 3 percent to 45 percent.
The report also noted that while state system tuition levels remain more affordable than those of state-related institutions, room and board charges are increasing faster than at state-related institutions.
Moreover, the report maintained that some services, such as counseling and student retention initiatives, have been curtailed while others have been downsized, with staff let go or asked to reduce hours.
“These services are critical to ensure the success of students, particularly underrepresented and first-generation students. Interviewees suggested that inadequate state support and revenue from tuition have affected these providers of student support, as has increased competition for funding among the different services.’’
The report noted as a result, graduation rates at the state-owned universities lag behind those of state-related and other four-year private institutions in Pennsylvania.
“These differences could reflect a different mix of students and their needs — and, possibly, better academic and student services offered at state-related and private institutions,’’ according to the report.
The report also pointed out problems with governance of the system.
“State System and university officials reported that the State System governance structure sometimes allows political views, rather than the best interests of the system and its universities, to govern decisions,” the report said. “A Board of Governors that oversees the State System includes the governor and several members of the legislature representing partisan points of view.
“This structure enables members to infuse their ideologies and views in education discussions,’’ the report added.
And it’s not like the current system is working all that well financially for the state’s college students.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average in-state tuition at a public university in the U.S. is $6,131. In Pennsylvania, that price tag is $12,186.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania college graduates leave school with the second-most average college debt at $35,759, according to a ranking by U.S. News and World Report.
The report urged PSSHE officials to consider closing universities or merging them. They also urged possible alignments where state-owned universities could serve as branch campuses for state-related universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Temple or Penn State University.
PSSHE officials are dead set against closing or merging state-system universities, contending that could adversely affect students in poorer, rural communities. However, you have to wonder how many young people aren’t going to college because of exorbitant tuition rates at our state-related universities, and how many are financially crushed by the loans they have to pay off once they graduate.
It’s clear that fundamental changes have to be made. PSSHE officials along with Gov. Wolf and the Legislature should be working together to find some workable solutions that will lower tuition rates while providing quality college educations for our young people. However, they’re all going their separate ways with their own agendas.
One thing is certain. Freezing tuition for a year won’t do much in the long-range scheme of things.