Owning the Crisis the Challenge of Improving Pennsylvania's Higher Education System Rests with the State, Argues University Administratorscott Irlbacher

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 16, 2017 | Go to article overview

Owning the Crisis the Challenge of Improving Pennsylvania's Higher Education System Rests with the State, Argues University Administratorscott Irlbacher


The chancellor of Pennsylvania's state-owned universities recently admitted that the system is in crisis. The diagnosis? A threatening combination of enrollment losses, state appropriations at the same dollar amount as they were nearly 20 years ago and collective bargaining agreements that bring annual cost increases despite stagnant or declining revenues at nearly every university.

This should be unacceptable for all Pennsylvanians and the thousands of non-residents who are paying to attend these schools. But the onus shouldn't fall on the individual universities - it should be owned (and corrected) by the state.

One reason we're in this mess is that Pennsylvania has one of the highest concentrations of post-secondary education options in the nation and lacks a central comprehensive plan on how to fund public higher education and provide aid to Pennsylvanians wishing to attend private institutions. The ratio is increasing as the state continues to lose population. The state owns 14 universities, collectively known as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

The state also guarantees annual funding to 12 community colleges, along with Lincoln University, Penn State University, Temple University, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh. On top of all of this, Pennsylvania also boasts over 80 private colleges and universities, and that doesn't include Bible colleges, seminaries, trade schools or predominantly online institutions. Through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, we also have a large program to provide low-interest loans and grants to the neediest Pennsylvanians to attend college.

Astonishingly, Pennsylvania lacks any sort of comprehensive plan related to funding higher education institutions or providing direct higher education student aid.

First, Pennsylvania must prioritize the institutions it owns. These would be the 14 state system universities and Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster. When my parents attended Edinboro State College in the early 1970s, Pennsylvania was funding roughly 70 percent of the cost of running the institution. However, when the state elevated these colleges to the university level it failed to keep up with increased operational costs. When I attended Edinboro 30 years later, Pennsylvania's appropriation accounted for less than 30 percent of what it cost to operate the university. The state system now receives funding in nearly the same dollar amount it received from Pennsylvania in 1999.

This is unacceptable, and the state must come up with a funding formula whereby the state covers the majority of the cost or something very close to it. Citizens must ask our state why it costs roughly $15,000 to educate each student at state-owned universities while we spend roughly $42,000 per inmate at state-owned prisons. Pennsylvania must identify administrative functions that can be consolidated or centralized by existing state departments in Harrisburg.

The state also must make a tough decision about the future of Cheyney University. For too long it has been an operational quagmire and a financial disaster. Open admission has only exacerbated its tuition-driven revenue problems. The state must identify a way to meet its mission as a historically black university or fold the university altogether.

Second, Pennsylvania needs to increase geographic access to affordable two-year education opportunities. …

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