– Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education experienced a series of both highs and lows in 2016, realizing significant accomplishments on behalf of students while also facing significant challenges along the way. The year ahead will be a “pivotal” one for the State System and its 14 universities, its two top leaders said today while delivering the annual “State of the System” address.
Listing a series of accomplishments, Chancellor Frank T. Brogan mentioned a first-of-its kind statewide reverse transfer agreement the System signed with Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges last year that will help students achieve their first college degree, as well as several new policy initiatives approved by the Board of Governors that will directly benefit students by strengthening the universities’ general education requirements, helping them stay on track toward timely graduation and ensuring the relevancy of their degrees.
The State System also received a second consecutive increase in funding from the Commonwealth, helping to ensure the universities remain affordable to students and their families.
“That couldn’t have happened without the hard work and advocacy of so many,” Mr. Brogan said during his part of the address. “No doubt, there’s a long way to go in that regard, but we are very thankful for the state’s efforts to keep higher education affordable.”
With almost 90 percent of State System students being Pennsylvania residents, and the vast majority remaining here after graduation to live, work and raise their families, “We know that investing in our public universities is an investment in Pennsylvania’s future,” the chancellor said. “Consider this: Our universities generate $11 of economic impact for every dollar of public support they receive. That is a remarkable turnaround, and one we should be proud of.”
The chancellor also recognized the outstanding work of faculty and their contributions to ensuring the universities continue to meet the other component of their primary mission of providing the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost.
“Faculty are the heart and soul of our institutions,” Mr. Brogan said. “They make a difference in our students’ lives every day. Their knowledge and dedication; their creativity; and, most of all, their commitment to the education of their students, are what make our universities special. They are what make a State System university education what it is.”
Board of Governors Chairwoman Cynthia D. Shapira also praised the hard work and dedication of the faculty and staff at the 14 universities, urging them to “keep their eye on the prize” and continue to do the best they can on behalf of students.
“It should be the goal of each and every one of us to fully support our students from the moment they first arrive on campus until they walk across the graduation stage,” Ms. Shapira said. “We want them not only to walk away with a degree, but also with a plan for their future that will help ensure a lifetime of success, not just for themselves, but for their families, their communities, and the entire Commonwealth.”
The many successes of the past year came even as the universities faced unprecedented challenges. Responding to those challenges, the State System is preparing to launch an in-depth strategic review that could lead to significant changes in the way the 14-university system is organized and how it operates in the future.
“We will be taking a hard look at how we are organized today, and how we need to be organized in the future in order to continue to serve our students and the Commonwealth as its public university system,” Mr. Brogan said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to do it. We are the people who have to have the courage to step up and sound the clarion call for change.”
“The year we just went through was perhaps the most challenging in the State System’s history,” said Ms. Shapira, speaking just before the chancellor. “Many of our universities are feeling the twin effects of declining revenues and enrollments. And, as daunting as those challenges have been, there is little doubt that 2017 will bring new and perhaps even greater challenges. In fact, I believe this year will be pivotal for the State System.”
Like other public university Systems across the nation, the State System has struggled for the better part of a decade with declining state support and falling enrollment. Nationally, state funding to higher education has been reduced by nearly $3 billion since the beginning of the recession in 2008, while overall college enrollment has declined for five straight years.
Most state, including Pennsylvania, have begun restoring some of the funding cuts brought about by the recession, but still have a long way to go. The State System has received increased funding in each of the last two years, but the current year’s appropriation is still about $60 million less than the amount it received in the year before the recession began.
“Other states are wrestling with the same issues we are, leading to the reorganization of public university systems in many states around the country—including the merger or even closure of institutions,” Mr. Brogan said. “Is that where we are headed? That’s a question I can’t answer today, nor can anyone else. But it is a question we have to ask—and we have to answer—this year, not in the future—because this System and our universities are essential to Pennsylvania’s future.”
It is projected that by 2020 more than 60 percent of jobs in Pennsylvania and nationally will require at least some postsecondary education, and one-third of the projected job openings in this state are expected to require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“We must be there to help meet that need,” Mr. Brogan said. “Every bit of this System—as great as it has been over the years—will be examined. From how we operate the Office of the Chancellor to how we are organized as a System, we are approaching this strategic review with no restraints, no preconceptions, and no limits.”
All of the System’s various stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, alumni and elected leaders, will be asked to provide input into the process. Significant changes could result.
“We must take steps now to unshackle our universities from arcane rules, practices, and procedures that are preventing them from being the engines of opportunity they are intended to be. What worked 30 years ago in many cases isn’t working today,” Mr. Brogan said. “Not only do we have an opportunity to make some dynamic changes; we have an obligation to do so. If our state-owned universities are to survive: more than that, if they are to thrive into the future, we must be willing to evolve.”
Calling herself a “realistic optimist,” Ms. Shapira said she looks at the challenges facing the State System and its universities as opportunities to improve the System and how it serves students. The planned, wide-ranging review of the System and the thought of change should not be a “scary thing,” she said, adding, “We have the opportunity to do things even better.”
Mr. Brogan made clear that he believes major changes are necessary, as well.
“We cannot just tinker around the edges; we’ve got to be brave enough to explore every option as we move forward,” he said. “Higher education has always been known for big thinking. And that big thinking has resulted in some of the most important accomplishments ever achieved—from curing disease to landing a man on the moon. It’s time we use that same kind of big thinking to chart our own future.
“In a very real sense, this is our moon shot. This is our chance to shape the future of our universities and the future of our students’ lives.”
Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education is the largest provider of higher education in the Commonwealth, with more than 100,000 degree-seeking students and thousands more who are enrolled in certificate and other career-development programs. Collectively, the 14 universities that comprise the State System offer more than 2,300 degree and certificate programs in more than 530 academic areas. Nearly 520,000 State System university alumni live in Pennsylvania.
The State System universities are Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester Universities of Pennsylvania. The universities also operate branch campuses in Oil City (Clarion), Freeport and Punxsutawney (IUP), and Clearfield (Lock Haven), and offer classes and programs at several regional centers, including the Dixon University Center in Harrisburg and in Center City in Philadelphia.