Monday, July 15

Pennsylvania Governor Proposes to Overhaul the State University System

Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, who has complained that his state’s higher education “isn’t working,” proposed on Friday a sweeping overhaul of the state’s sprawling college and university system that would reduce tuition for many students and determine funding for individual schools based in part on their performance.

The plan would consolidate 10 of Pennsylvania’s state universities and all 15 of its community colleges under one governance umbrella, boost state funding for public higher education, and allow students with low to middle incomes to pay only $1,000 a semester in tuition.

Most of the plan would not affect Pennsylvania’s best-known public universities, including Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple.

“After 30 years of disinvestment, too many of our colleges and universities are running on empty, and not enough students have affordable pathways into good jobs,” Mr. Shapiro said in a statement.

Plans for the overhaul have been under development for nearly a year by a working group formed by the governor, who complained publicly shortly after taking office in 2023 about problems in the state’s higher education system.

Competition among state-funded universities, he said last year, was creating a negative effect, with “colleges competing with one another for a limited dollar, duplicating degree programs, driving up costs and actually reducing access.”

Mr. Shapiro, a Democrat and former state attorney general, did not disclose the dollar amount of his funding proposal, whether new taxes would be levied or whether there would be reductions in university departments. Some of those details are expected to be revealed on Feb. 6, when the governor is set to deliver a budget message.

A spokesman for the governor said the exact governance structure of the new system — and whether it would have one board and one chancellor — had yet to be worked out with the state legislature.

While cost-saving is a priority, with a possibility that administrative functions of the universities would be consolidated, there were no plans to close campuses, the spokesman said.

Under the plan, funding for each university would be based partly on a system that rewards schools that achieve performance metrics, including their graduation rates and the number of first-generation college students who receive credentials.

Pennsylvania currently ranks 48th among states in the affordability of its public higher education system, and 49th in spending for public higher education, according to Mr. Shapiro’s office.

An analysis in 2021 by an independent research group, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, found that Pennsylvania was one of only four states where students had to pay 20 percent or more of household income on higher education.

Nationally, there has been growing concern about college affordability, as budget cuts by states since the 2008 financial crisis have shifted more of the cost to students. Several governors, both Democrats and Republicans, have proposed additional funding for higher education.

The plan by Mr. Shapiro affects 10 smaller public universities around the state that comprise what is known as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Enrollment at the 10 schools has dropped sharply in the last 10 years, to 83,000 students in 2023 from 115,000 in 2012. Community-college enrollment in the state has seen a similar decline.

Colleges are bracing for additional enrollment drops in the next few years as students born following the 2008 financial crisis — a period of lower birthrates — come of age.