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Pennsylvania State Senators Call for PASSHE Reform; Schools Can Leave Group

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Given the financial crunch many state-funded colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are experiencing, it seemed to be only a matter of time before those school sought to secede from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education - PASSHE - and seek other sources of funding and support, although an actually decision by any of the affected schools appear to be very far off.

Pennsylvania State Sen. John T. Yudichak (D-14th), a member of the PASSHE Board of Governors, said given the state’s shrinking education funding, these schools had no choice but to seek support elsewhere.

“The unprecedented decline in state support that out higher education institutions have seen throughout each of the last three budget cycles has certainly put PASSHE and all of its fourteen member schools in a precarious situation,” Yudichak said. “The ability of state system schools to keep tuition costs affordable, retain high-quality faculty and maintain state-of-the-art facilities relies almost entirely on the availability of adequate state funding, and unfortunately recent state budgets have not made the necessary investment in our PASSHE schools.”

The 14 Pennsylvania colleges and universities that can now opt out of the PASSHE are Bloomberg, Cheyney, East Stroundsburg, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Lock Haven, Millersville, Slippery Rock, California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion, Edinboro, Kutztown, Mansfield, Shippensburg and West Chester.

And the timing of such an announcement must be considered. The Yudichak statement comes weeks after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett delivered his Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal - and a month after PASSHE praised the governor for maintaining higher education funding year-over-year.

“While the Governor’s budget reflects the fact that Pennsylvania’s economy continues to recover, it also demonstrates support for our state universities. We will continue to advocate for any additional funding that may become available, especially in support of our special initiative to develop and expand degree programs that meet the commonwealth’s priority needs,” said PASSHE Board of Governors Chairman Guido M. Pichini when Corbett announced the funding level. “There are enormous challenges facing the administration and Legislature as they seek to meet the many needs of all of Pennsylvania’s citizens within the available revenues. Our students and their families face those same kinds of challenges every day.

“Likewise, every PASSHE university has become more efficient in its daily operations, and several have had to make extremely difficult personnel decisions to help ensure their long-term viability. Nonetheless, we are dedicated to providing a higher education experience that is high quality and high value,” Pichini continued. “I am confident that both the governor and the legislature share that primary objective, and we look forward to working with both throughout the budget process.”

PASSHE Chancellor Frank T. Brogan also seemed pleased by Corbett’s budget announcement when it was announced.

“Having been in my position for a little more than 100 days, I already have learned firsthand how vital our universities are to their communities, their regions and the commonwealth. I look forward to working with the Governor and the Legislature to help ensure PASSHE continues to fulfill that important role,” Brogan said. “These are extremely difficult times; we certainly understand that. But, there is no doubt that funds dedicated to education truly are an investment in Pennsylvania’s future, and that the return on that investment is enormous.

“With the new strategic plan just adopted by our Board of Governors, PASSHE is prepared to address many of the significant issues challenging Pennsylvania employers,” Brogan added. “We are committed to retooling our universities to ensure we are addressing the most critical workforce needs while ensuring our students receive a broad-based education that prepares them for success throughout their lives and many potential career changes.”

PASSHE funding has become a bipartisan issue, as Pennsylvania Republicans have joined Democrats in seeking more flexibility for PASSHE schools.

“The current funding structure for PASSHE is unsustainable – and now is the time to address the issue for the sake of students, communities and our universities,” said State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R-6th). “Allowing universities to transition to a state-related institution will provide greater flexibility to respond to local community, business and workforce needs – while providing more funds for remaining PASSHE schools.”

The senators said Senate Bill 1275 would give universities in the system greater independence and flexibility in meeting financial challenges and academic and enrollment needs.

“I am concerned by what appears to be a potential house of cards in terms of both finances and demographics,” said State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-19th), who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s not just about making up the money; it’s about attracting more students. And I am concerned that the state system may be engaging in a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Yudichak said that his position affords him the opportunity of seeing first-hand the effects the evaporating funding is having on these schools, and that ideally, dissembling the the state system should only be considered as the nuclear option.

“As a PASSHE board member, I appreciate the frustration exhibited by the sponsors of this bill and I understand the debate they want to initiative with this legislation. However, any effort that could potentially lead to the disbanding of our state system - an effort that has proved to significantly increase student costs and diminished access to higher education in other states - is not in the best interest of our students or our schools,” Yudichak said. “I look forward to working with the administration, my legislative colleagues and my fellow members on the PASSHE board of governors to focus our efforts on improving the efficiencies of outstate system of higher education and fighting for increased state funding to ensure every Pennsylvanian who seeks a college education has the opportunity to pursue that dream.”

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