Critics worry of PASSHE’s ‘continuing woes’ during a decade of change

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(The Center Square) – Though Pennsylvania’s college student numbers have dropped dramatically, its higher ed institutions haven’t cut payroll to match the change.

A policy brief has criticized a lack of staff-cutting, but the public system says changes in student demographics and program focus means staffing numbers aren’t an issue.

The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy argued the root of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s “continuing woes” stem from staffing expenses.

“The dominance of faculty unions and other unions has undoubtedly made dealing with major declines in enrollment, traceable to fewer high school graduates and a huge decrease in PASSHE applications, far more difficult and costly than it would have been otherwise,” wrote Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute.

Recent funding boosts from the General Assembly, he said, makes necessary reforms less likely to happen.

“Ironically, the recent much larger state appropriations could make bargaining negotiations worse as unions see the state willing to help underwrite expenses at substantially greater levels than in the recent past,” Haulk wrote.

PASSHE employment has fallen by 23% from 2010 to 2022, the policy brief noted – more than 3,300 workers. The biggest reductions came in operations and instruction, followed by academic support. Student services only fell by 4%, though student enrollment fell by 31%.

PASSHE has kept salary payments flat, lowered health care costs and operating expenses, and reduced pension costs by $20 million after rising through 2018.

The institute also raised concerns over academic rigor. As applications fell, acceptance rates went up.

“PASSHE has begun to improve its expenditure picture but it has been accompanied by a serious weakening of its student preparedness for college work as indicated by the high acceptance rates and low average SAT scores at many of the PASSHE locations,” Haulk wrote.

The dramatic changes at PASSHE in the last decade has meant university consolidation, a changing student body, and striking a deal with the state to control costs in exchange for state support.

“To help more students and families afford higher education, the Board of Governors has kept tuition the same for six consecutive years, a rare accomplishment in higher education today,” PASSHE spokesman Kevin Hensil said. “We remain the lowest priced four-year higher education option in the state.”

Keeping costs and tuition low at PASSHE, he said, is part of the system’s mission and affordability “remains a high priority.”

“PASSHE universities serve more in-state students than any other college or university in Pennsylvania,” Hensil said. “We know our students – many from low- and middle-income families – depend on PASSHE universities for access to higher education and the career opportunities created by their knowledge and skills.”

In the last two fall semesters, PASSHE has grown enrollments by 10%, with East Stroudsburg, Cheyney, Indiana, and Commonwealth Universities all getting at least a 12% increase.

The struggle to grow isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. A drop in the college-aged population has hit the northeast and Midwest, along with the effects of the pandemic and inflation driving down student numbers. The commonwealth’s population is also shifting to the southeast and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, leaving rural universities a bigger challenge to bring in students.

Students in PASSHE also differ compared to a decade ago: they’re choosing majors that have a clearer path to employment.

“PASSHE universities have increased the number of students graduating into high-demand careers – health care, STEM, education and business – since 2010, despite there being fewer total students,” Hensil said.

Those sorts of changes have been at the forefront when PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein appears before the General Assembly.

During the Board of Governors meeting in July, Greenstein spoke of the system’s future as one that fills a workforce gap for the state by improving graduation rates and educating adults who want to retrain for another line of work.

The approach of higher ed officials has changed just as has the approach of legislators. Republican lawmakers have become more skeptical of how higher ed – both PASSHE and non-PASSHE schools – benefits the public. Over the summer, Pennsylvania Republicans required Penn State and other state-related universities to diverge more financial information in exchange for more funding; previously, they spoke of wanting to be a partner, not an ATM, for higher education.

“We are proud to have rebuilt our partnership with the state – and their trust in us – and we are incredibly appreciative to the General Assembly and Governor Shapiro for their continued strong investment in PASSHE students and the universities that serve them,” Hensil said.

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