Potential University Changes May Affect Local Economies

By Andrea Sears, Public News Service
for The Posts

HARRISBURG PA – A new report says the proposed consolidation of Pennsylvania’s 14 public universities would mean significant job losses and economic decline in surrounding communities.

The Board of Governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted Wednesday (April 28, 2021) to advance a plan that would consolidate six campuses into two larger institutions, and to reduce faculty and staff levels system-wide. If approved, the plan would eliminate more than 1,500 jobs in 2023.

Overseen by the board are Bloomsburg University, California University, Cheyney University, Clarion University, East Stroudsburg University, Edinboro University, Indiana University, Kutztown University
Lock Haven University, Mansfield University, Millersville University, Shippensburg University, Slippery Rock University, and West Chester University.

Report co-author Michael Ash – chair of the Economics Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – claims that would cause further job losses in communities where the universities are major employers, It would cost surrounding counties millions in lost revenue, as well as local and state tax revenue, he said.

“This will rank in the top 1 percent of layoffs in Pennsylvania since 2011,” Ash said. “This is a very large economic impact.”

Board Chancellor Daniel Greenstein reported the universities’ enrollment has dropped 21 percent in the past decade. Without consolidation, he added, the system could face dissolution or have to close campuses.

Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, blames decades of declining state spending on higher education for the enrollment drop. He said state funding for the universities has fallen to just 38 percent of the level it was in 1983 and 198484. “Those universities,” Stier said, “which were once the engines of social mobility in Pennsylvania, have become much less effective at that task as tuition has gone up.

Higher tuitions made the universities “less accessible to working people,” Stier suggested. He said the price of a four-year education, as a percent of the median income in Pennsylvania, is now tied with Alabama as the second least-affordable in the country.

Most of the untenured faculty at the universities, those most likely to be cut, and almost 60 percent of students enrolled in the system are women,” Ash noted. “Some of the campuses have female enrollment as high as 70 percent,” he said. “So, as these cuts arrive, there’ll be a disproportionate impact” on female enrollment in the system.

The Board of Governors’ vote launched a 60-day public comment period on the proposal. A final vote is scheduled for July.

Photo of students in class supplied by Public News Service