Amid enrollment decline, Pa. public university system turns to tech

The Indiana University of Pennsylvania, one of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities. (Gretchen / Flickr)

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The board of Pennsylvania’s public university system voted Thursday to request up to $100 million in appropriations from the state legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf to support new technology tools.

The vote authorized the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s chancellor, Dan Greenstein, to seek a line-item appropriation for $100 million over the next five years, which would be used to fund technology projects across the system’s 14 universities and 95,000 students. The funds, according to a press release from the system, would “be used to create enhanced learning opportunities; transform information technology including student information services; and a new consortium of shared services to support the System Redesign effort.”

“In a sharing system, the universities will work more closely together, expanding educational opportunities for students while ensuring the the programs they offer align even more closely with workforce needs,” Greenstein said in an April release about the effort. “[Universities] will combine and share more of their business and administrative functions, enabling the universities to reduce their cost of operations and become more cost-efficient so all of us will be better equipped to focus on our top priority—student success.”

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, also known as PASSHE, says it’s already developing the consortium of shared services and aims to use the system’s size to realize long-term cost savings.

“We are reimagining public higher education in Pennsylvania, and the steps taken by the Board today will provide significant benefits for our students,” Cindy Shapira, the board’s chair, said in the release.

The proposed $100 million comes alongside the board’s general appropriations request to the state legislature of $487 million for the 2020-2021 academic year. Earlier this year, the PASSHE board voted to freeze tuition across all 14 universities. After the freeze, universities will be able to craft their own tuition plans — something new for Pennsylvania’s public universities — with the approval of the board.

The redesign is rooted in a 2016 review of the system’s operations, which officially kicked off in 2017 with the adoption of three strategic priorities: ensuring student success, leveraging university strengths and transforming the governance/leadership structure.

The push for redesign comes as the system has seen an enrollment decline of almost 20 percent since 2010, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

An April 2018 study from the RAND Corporation, sponsored by the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, recommended five options for change:

  • Keep the state system structure with improvements and modify the governance structure to free institutions from some state requirements.
  • Consolidate the state’s 14 public universities into 5-8 universities and modify the governance structure to free institutions from some state requirements.
  • Eliminate the state system and convert universities to state-related status — like Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln University and Temple University.
  • Place the state system under the management of a large state-related university like Penn State University or the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Merge the state system into one or more of the state-related universities as branch campuses.

A resolution from the PASSHE Board of Governors in 2017; however, said the group was “committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of all 14 institutions within the state system.”

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