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Report on State System falls short

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A management consultant’s study on how to rescue the badly flagging Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is fraught with deficiencies that fail to address core problems, says the president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

Not only is the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems’ July 27 report filled with edu-jargon that lacks specificity, it automatically removes from consideration some of the very things that must be done, says Jake Haulk.

The study says problems at the 14 state-owned schools boil down to the “inadequacies of the governance structure for coping with converging pressures” that include combined double-digit enrollment declines projected to worsen, a dramatic increase in per-student spending at schools with the greatest declines, incredibly small class sizes and, thus, far more faculty than can be justified. The report also flags the system’s latest union contract — featuring $52 million in additional compensation and settled under strike duress — as far too generous for the schools to afford.

But while the consultant’s explanations are primarily focused on governance issues, they contain few clear-cut action steps. The report offers “a lot of governmentese-sounding items such as ‘adopt a strategic financing model that is better fit for varied circumstances,’ or ‘reorient the Board and Office of Chancellor toward greater responsibility for policy leadership’ (and) ‘retain and ensure stability,’” Haulk says. “Some specificity as ‘steps to take’ would be good.”

He says one of the biggest failings is the report’s recommendation of “what not to do” — “No institution should be closed; no mergers of any institutions; no attempt to undermine collective bargaining agreements or processes.”

“In other words, some of the dramatic actions needed to create a more robust and viable system are off the table, including taking a harder stance toward the faculty union,” Haulk says. “It is a moral failing of the state to permit state employees to create financial and undue academic stress on students. If faculty members are unhappy enough to walk off the job, they should find a new job.

Haulk finds two other glaring omissions. First, entrance requirements are declining or nonexistent at some of the 14 schools, leading to remedial classes that downgrade academic rigor, lengthen time to graduate and increase the dropout rate.

Second, the report fails to directly address the “calamity” of Cheney University. Enrollment has fallen by half since 2007, its 10-percent four-year graduation rate ranks dead last in the commonwealth and its annual state subsidy of $18,000 per student is far higher than its peer State System schools.

Haulk says the State System’s problems will have to be dealt with legislatively because there is no way the system can or will take dramatic steps necessary to right-size itself or ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely unless it’s ordered to do so.

“It will be very hard,” Haulk concludes. “But until they are remedied, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s problems will fester and grow worse with more inter-institutional rancor and more calls for tax dollars.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy ([email protected]).

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