OPINION

Greenstein isn't planning to shut down our state universities

By Judy Schwank

In the State Senate’s recent appropriation hearing about funding Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, PASSHE Chancellor Dan Greenstein sought to drive home the fact that our state schools are in serious financial trouble.

So much so, that if nothing changes, he'd recommend disbanding the system.

The key point being: If nothing changes.

State Senator Judy Schwank represents Pennsylvania’s 11th Senate district and is a member of PASSHE’s Board of Governors.

But some of my colleagues and those in academia were quick to panic, seemingly understanding Chancellor Greenstein’s frank comments as a plan to shut down our state schools. It has caused unnecessary uproar considering PASSHE’s financial woes aren’t new. This was evident to the Legislature last year when we passed Act 50, which authorized needed reforms, and independent reviews of the system (already completed).

I’ve served on PASSHE’s Board of Governors, a 20-member board responsible for planning development and operation of the entire system, for six years. I’ve invested time and energy into my role because I believe quality, affordable education can bring about meaningful change, both to the students served and to our commonwealth.

The last few years have been difficult for public and private higher education, even prior to the pandemic. It’s a buyer’s market and students have their pick of schools. PASSHE’s main sell for years was its affordability – but the economy has negated that. Striking a balance between keeping education affordable, while also attracting and retaining top-notch professors and staff is difficult.

Keep in mind that a few years ago, our 14 PASSHE schools’ state support was slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Although some of those cuts were restored, PASSHE is operating at the same appropriation level it did in 2000. And, primarily due to demographic changes, our systemwide enrollment has dropped to about 95,000 from a peak of 119,000 in 2010.

Our state schools are an integral economic asset to our state, especially for workforce development; their continued health is vital to the economic success of Pennsylvania. 

PASSHE is in the process of redesigning itself with three priorities in mind: ensuring student success; leveraging university strengths; and transforming the governance/leadership structure. The plan is currently in its third and final phase. We need to let this process finish and review its recommendations. The intention was never to close schools but to better position them to survive.

For sure, there is more to be done and more can be done. For example, our state schools could forge stronger relationships with community colleges to create a pipeline of students and find ways to provide educational opportunities for retraining and upskilling our existing workforce. It’s also imperative we empanel a Higher Education Funding Commission to review and make recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly on funding public higher education.

I wish Chancellor Greenstein’s remarks had instead inspired my colleagues to find ways to support and further invest in our state system. If we can’t get beyond the outrage, our students, particularly those of lower income and color, will suffer the most.

Higher education is supposed to be a great equalizer. This is not the time to abandon that goal.

State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-11, represents a portion of Berks County. She's also a member of PASSHE’s Board of Governors.