Keystone State of Confusion: Students and Parents May Require a Road Map to Navigate Pennsylvania's Diverse and Often Complex Higher Education Landscape

By Stuart, Reginald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

Keystone State of Confusion: Students and Parents May Require a Road Map to Navigate Pennsylvania's Diverse and Often Complex Higher Education Landscape


Stuart, Reginald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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When high school seniors begin searching for the best school to fit their higher education goals, they may need a road map, tour guide and interpreter to help them sort through Pennsylvania's higher education universe. For sure there are seemingly endless choices--public, private, large, small, urban and rural.

The Keystone State boasts nearly 200 public and private institutions of higher learning. The similarity with the higher education landscape in other states seems to end with those characteristics however, as even education leaders in the state confess it can be confusing.

"I once had to explain it to a delegation from Mongolia," says Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, who also served in the state legislature for 24 years. "Even when you speak the same language, it's hard to explain."

Penn State University, for example, is not a state university nor is it legally affiliated with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the unified network of 14 state-owned universities fully funded and run by the state. The University of Pennsylvania is believed to be the only private school in the nation to carry the flag of "the university," a reference commonly held by a state's flagship public university.

To add to the confusion, for example, California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania--both members of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education--are located in California, Pa., and Indiana, Pa., respectively. The state's 14 community colleges and their network of campuses are an independent confederation of schools with minimal state coordination or oversight. The Pennsylvania Commission on Community Colleges is a nonprofit association of college presidents. Each president is free to lobby the legislature for funds for their respective school.

To boot, Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University each have special status as "state-related" schools. Penn State has had the status since its early years in the mid-1800s, and the other three acquired it in the 1960s as part of a state bailout of their financial woes. As state-related, they can make their own cases for state money and get an allocation each year--about 10 percent of their total budgets--while escaping the coordination and governance found in the State System of Higher Education. Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are "state-aided" schools, a classification that provides them state assistance for specific programs, such as UPenn's veterinary medicine program, the only one in the state.

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A Loaded Landscape

Pennsylvania's higher education landscape is a mix of "political compromise, part institutional history and heritage," says Dr. John G. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the State System of Higher Education. "If people aren't tracking, it can be confusing for them."

Higher education in Pennsylvania is deeply rooted in private school education, still a strong force in the state. Long before the state started its own network of four-year schools, Penn State, for example, was designated in the 1860s as the state's "land grant" institution. Penn State holds that position today, operating an extensive agricultural research and cooperative extension program that rakes in millions each year in federal funds.

It was not until the early 1980s that the state-owned group of four-year colleges was split from the state Department of Education and set up as the State System of Higher Education. Even then, the schools the state helped bail out in the 1960s (Temple, Pittsburgh, Lincoln) and Penn State were excluded from this overhaul, the political winds in the state preferring it.

The practical fragmentation plays out in different ways, depending on where you are around the table, says Diane Bosak, executive director of the community colleges association, echoing the sentiments of others. …

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