Plan allowing Pa. colleges to leave state system praised, panned

    A plan to let qualifying state universities leave the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has been unveiled, with supporters calling it an effort to shore up the struggling system and let its largest schools operate with more autonomy.Critics of the proposal, including the state system chancellor and the union representing its employees, say if thriving schools can leave the 14-university state system, tuition will go up there and at remaining schools.

    The measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, R-Bucks, said Tuesday he doesn’t think that’s likely.

    “I don’t think it will go up that much, and, certainly, we’re trying to shift money from us into the other schools,” Tomlinson said.

    He and other supporters are framing the change as a way to bring money, at least in the short term, into the state system without having to rely on taxpayers. Under the measure, schools leaving PASSHE would pay 70 percent of their property value back to the system, and 30 percent to the state, over a 30-year span.

    “If you have the financial ability and you can afford to, you’ll pay for your buildings, you’ll buy your way out of the system, you’ll not become a private school, you’ll become a state-related school,” Tomlinson said.

    The measure would apply to schools enrolling at least 7,000 students, and it would require them to get approval from their trustees before leaving PASSHE.

    Departing schools would be considered state-related universities and would have more autonomy to allocate money and offer academic programs reflective of local employment opportunities. Chris Franklin, a trustee at West Chester University, said that kind of freedom would also result in building purchases and collective bargaining agreements that are more cost-effective for the school.

    Tomlinson added that he’s willing to see schools that leave the system, like his own alma mater West Chester University, receive a small cut in its state funding.

    Supporters say PASSHE needs a drastic measure like this one, given that it’s struggling due to dropping enrollment, rising costs, and a state unable to help fill budget shortfalls.

    “I think we have a train wreck coming financially. I think we have to do something about that,” Tomlinson said. “But if we do nothing, I think there are some schools in jeopardy. We have a couple schools that, because of demographics and financial situations, are in jeopardy of not being able to survive.”

    Tomlinson was asked why he’s not proposing to disband PASSHE, if school autonomy is such a concern.

    “I want to work within the system,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t want to blow it up.”

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