Administration

Public Regional Colleges Never Die. Can They Be Saved?

April 30, 2017 Premium

Andrew Turner
Enrollment at Clarion U. of Pennsylvania has dropped nearly 29 percent since 2009.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand the math that spells trouble for public higher education in many states. Typically, the number of high-school graduates is projected to decline by X percent in the coming decade, and state support has dropped by Y million dollars since the recession with little sign of ever rising again. Meanwhile, the number of four-year regional comprehensive universities remains constant, an inflexible denominator.

The numbers are plain, but solutions remain elusive. Comprehensives are the workhorses of a public higher-education system, awarding the bulk of bachelor’s degrees and providing educational opportunities in all corners of a state. But certain corners of many states are home to institutions that have been hemorrhaging students and struggling to balance their budgets.

Pennsylvania is one of those states. Nine of the 14 institutions in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, known as Passhe, have suffered double-digit percentage drops in fall enrollment since 2009. (Only one, West Chester University, in a Philadelphia suburb, has seen steady annual increases during that period.)

In January, the system announced the first ever full-scale review of its universities and the system over all, which Frank T. Brogan, the chancellor, says is unsustainable in its current form. "The Board of Governors pretty quickly made the case that everything should be on the table. What got most of the attention was the word ‘closure,’" he says. But neither he nor the board want to take that route: "Sustainability is a more complicated approach, and I think a more powerful approach." A State Senate committee will also conduct its own independent review of the system later this year. Passhe’s is slated to be completed this summer.

What can be done, in Pennsylvania and in the growing number of states that are being forced to reckon with their comprehensive-university systems? Universities, even wobbly ones, are complex and substantial organizations sunk into the bedrock of their communities, their regions, their states. It may be nearly impossible to close one. And so some leaders are looking for ways to keep colleges alive, by carving out niches for them in the marketplace or by merging and consolidating, as has happened in Maine and Georgia.

But are such efforts transformational enough, or are they just a way of rearranging the deck chairs? And what will public comprehensive universities look like on the other side?

Whatever happens, it’s probably high time, says Karen M. Whitney, president of Clarion University, a Passhe institution. "We are," she says, "in a moment of reformation."

Some Passhe institutions are not waiting for the results of the two reviews to try to improve their fortunes, and they’re using a strategy being employed by colleges everywhere: finding a distinctive competitive niche. It’s a remarkable shift for institutions designed to be "comprehensive."

But significant transformation is not unknown at an institution like Clarion, according to Ms. Whitney. Since its founding in 1867 in the small Western Pennsylvania hilltop town from which it takes its name, Clarion has been a private Methodist seminary, a commonwealth normal school, an independent public university, and, since 1983, a Passhe institution. "Each of those reformations came with a shift of development in our mission and why we exist," she says.

The latest shift has been sparked by a serious enrollment decline. Clarion’s fall enrollment dropped from 7,346 students in 2009 to about 5,224 students last year, a decrease of nearly 29 percent.

For Clarion to rebound, it must focus on what its students want, Ms. Whitney says. And those preferences are clear: About 80 percent of Clarion’s students enroll in its business, health-care, or education programs. "I am not going to ignore 80 percent of our students," she says. "We’re moving from a broad-based approach to being all things to all people to what I’m going to call a distinctive mission."

The university recently expanded its health-care offerings with a nursing B.S.N. program, and she says she’s encouraged by the trends in applications and admissions for next fall. Ms. Whitney adds that in five years, if all goes well, she expects the share of its students enrolled in professional degree programs will have topped 90 percent.

Meanwhile, fall enrollment at Mansfield University, in rural north-central Pennsylvania, dropped from 3,569 to 2,198 since 2009, a decrease of 38 percent. It is planning to increase its appeal to students by shifting its role away from a straightforward comprehensive university toward a liberal-arts institution at a public-education price point, including ambitions to suffuse its existing professional and pre-professional programs with "liberal-arts-type tenets," says Brig. Gen. Francis L. Hendricks, the president. Mansfield isn’t making a left turn from its mission, he says, "it’s just a matter of playing to our strengths."

Edinboro University, in the commonwealth’s northwest corner, is responding to losing about 28 percent of its fall enrollment between 2010 and 2016 by identifying four academic program areas on which to refocus its resources, including its arts and digital entertainment program, among other pre-professional tracks.

Emphasizing certain things leads to de-emphasizing others. As Clarion’s nursing offerings have grown, disciplines such as philosophy and history have dwindled to a handful of faculty of each. At Edinboro, programs that are less in demand by students may have to be cut, says H. Fred Walker, the president. "What we’re being asked to do right now is become responsive to the changing economy," he says. "That’s a healthy thing."

Michael Henninger for The Chronicle
Whatever happens with coming reviews of the Pennsylvania higher-education system, says Karen Whitney, 
president of Clarion U., “the worst thing that can happen is that nothing happens.”
While leaders at some Passhe institutions may be setting a new course for their universities, those courses may be reversed by the recommendations of the looming system reviews. Five years from now, Clarion might have staked out its niche funneling students into careers in hospitals, small businesses, and schools. Or the system might have steered it in an entirely new direction. Or it might be shuttered.

But Ms. Whitney and other Passhe presidents agree that something must be done. Whatever happens, she says, "the worst thing that can happen is that nothing happens."

In the abstract, closing faltering institutions makes some sense. In reality, it’s all but impossible.

"Devastating" is a common response to questions about the possible effects of a closure. Clarion University, for example, is the largest employer in Clarion County. It is an economic and cultural driver in a poor region where the population and the manufacturing base that once employed it have both trailed off in recent decades. If Clarion closes, "you just basically say, ‘We’re shutting down Clarion County,’" says Jamie L. Phillips, a professor of philosophy and chair of the Faculty Senate at Clarion.

If the region is to rebound, it needs Clarion more than ever, says Mr. Phillips, who has worked there for 18 years. About 86 percent of the university’s students come from within 200 miles of the campus, and Clarion represents one of the few options for higher education in the immediate region. "Take that away from them, and what’s left?" Mr. Phillips says. "There’s nothing."

But the truth is that public colleges almost never die. The only commonly cited example of a stand-alone quasi-four-year public college that has been shut down is the University of South Dakota at Springfield, a small technical college that mostly offered two-year programs until it closed in 1984. (It was soon converted into a state prison.)

Even killing off a failing branch campus can be an agonizing process. Partly because of a $30-million cut to state support, the University of Connecticut system last year closed its campus in Torrington, where enrollment had dwindled to about 150 students even as it climbed at all five other UConn campuses. System officials spent a year in discussions about the necessity of the move with the Board of Trustees, state and local elected officials, and students and community members, says Sally M. Reis, the system’s vice provost for academic affairs.

Michael Henninger for The Chronicle
Clarion’s plan to sustain itself focuses on popular programs like nursing. But systemwide reviews this year may result in new directives.
But still there were objections, which were both practical and quirky. Torrington residents insisted to the board that it stay open, even though many of their own children had enrolled at UConn campuses elsewhere, Ms. Reis says. Community members suggested revitalizing the campus with a new manufacturing emphasis, even though nearby community colleges provided such training at a lower price. Some fretted publicly about the fate of the library’s in-house cat. (It found a new home before the campus closed last May.)

Suggested closures not only alarm local communities, they’re political poison. Each endangered university sits in some representative’s or senator’s district, and there’s "lots of downside for the people who represent those areas and not a lot of upside," says Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst for education policy at New America, a former Department of Education official, and an expert on public higher-education policy.

If states actually wanted to close institutions, Ms. Palmer says, it would help to have something like the United States military’s Base Realignment and Closure process, which is designed to make holistic, impartial decisions about closing defense installations, "to right-size these systems and do it well."

Since closing universities often isn’t a realistic option, several systems have considered campus mergers and other kinds of consolidation. That can take the form of sharing or pooling some business functions with other institutions, or merging two separate campuses under the same management and leadership.

Some struggling Passhe institutions are already sharing services with their peers in order to increase efficiency and reduce their costs. Cheyney University, a historically black institution outside Philadelphia that has seen enrollment drop by more than half since 2010, now outsources most of its business functions to nearby West Chester University. Mansfield University, which is handing over many of its business functions to the larger Bloomsburg University, about 90 miles away, will save the former money "so that we can protect the primary mission," says General Hendricks, the president.

Mr. Brogan, the system chancellor, says he suspects that consolidations could be a part of how the system moves forward after the reviews "Our system has up until quite recently been very much an every-man-for-himself operation," he says, with many of the same basic functions reproduced 14 times over. "They just don’t have the money to do that. More importantly there is no longer the necessity to do that."

Darrell Sapp, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Whether or not Pennsylvania’s higher-education system can be successfully transformed depends on political will, says Frank Brogan, chancellor of Passhe.
Other states have taken similar tacks. The University System of Georgia, for example, has merged 14 institutions over the past six years in an effort to improve academic opportunities and cut costs. Maine has also looked to mergers to help adjust the scope of its system of seven public four-year institutions to serve a shrinking population of 1.3 million.

The University of Maine system announced in March that it would merge its coastal Machias campus, which enrolls fewer than 800 students, with its flagship campus in Orono, about 90 miles away. The Machias campus had been struggling to maintain its enrollment — fall headcount shrank from 863 in 2011 to 786 in 2015 — and years of budget shortfalls had led to numerous staff cuts. "It had really become hollowed out," says James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine system. "That’s a strong term, but it really had."

The system’s Board of Trustees considered closing the campus, but ruled it out. "Would you take one of the last anchor institutions out of a region to save five, six, or seven million dollars, which would probably be a quick back-of-the-envelope net savings from something like that?" Mr. Page says. "And the answer is, you would not."

Because of Orono’s size and relatively good financial health, it can perform back-office functions far more cheaply than Machias can. The flagship can also offer the smaller campus services that it hasn’t had money for in several years, according to Mr. Page, including marketing and enrollment assistance. There are also academic synergies woven into the merger. Orono students and faculty will gain better access to Machias’ marine research facilities and teaching opportunities, while Machias could gain more students and access to more research funding. If Machias gets back to more solid footing as part of Orono, Mr. Page says, it might be able to strengthen itself, and its region, again.

Still, the old model of individualized universities has presented barriers to efficiency, and difficult questions. The system has a cybersecurity program taught on three different campuses. Do students have to enroll in three different universities? What about the differences in fees from campus to campus? And then there’s accreditation. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges accredits individual institutions, not systems, Mr. Page says.

Consolidations also may not be the silver bullet, financially, that many hope they are. While merging campuses can save money for a system, the savings typically come from layoffs of employees made redundant. "Saving that money will result in people losing their jobs, and some legislators are going to fight very hard to preserve jobs in their district," says Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. While closing or consolidating some offices can result in savings, many merged institutions still maintain two physical plants, two sets of faculty, and many administrators. Mergers are increasingly popular options, but "it’s an open question to how much money will ultimately be saved at the end of the day through these campus consolidations," Mr. Harnisch says. (It’s difficult to gauge the extent of savings in Georgia; the University System of Georgia did not respond to interview requests before press time.)

Yet, despite the uncertainties, Passhe, the University of Maine, and other systems may be peering over the lip of a new era of public higher education, where the autonomy and distinct identity of individual universities is redirected to a focus on delivering education to students as efficiently as possible. "The real question in all of this is, How do you use the collective assets of the institutions to serve students wherever they are?" says Dennis Jones, president emeritus of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, or Nchems, a nonprofit organization that advises colleges and systems on higher-education policy, and which is conducting the review commissioned by Passhe. Looking at the situation with a student-centric focus, rather than an institution-centric one, moves the conversation away from which individual universities might be closed or merged and toward how those universities operate and collaborate to provide education to students — which may have to be reconceived, he says.

It’s possible to imagine a future iteration of Passhe that looks and operates less like a collection of independent public universities and more like a system of branch campuses.

Each state’s political realities shape what’s possible in rethinking, and possibly reconfiguring, a large public university system. They are especially daunting in Pennsylvania.

No overarching office or organization coordinates its higher-education policy. Reforming that policy is the sort of complex and potentially contentious political task that’s going to take an official who "wakes up every morning and thinks that solving Passhe and its issues is my everyday job," says Mr. Jones. "The problem in Pennsylvania is that nobody does that, because there’s nobody that’s charged with that."

There are many issues to solve, some of the stickiest falling well outside the control of Passhe’s Board of Governors. Penn State University, the flagship research university, now has 24 campuses located throughout the commonwealth, all of them vying for many of the same students who might attend Passhe universities. Thanks to its laissez-faire approach to higher-education strategy, "this state has created an inherent competition even within the competition," says Mr. Brogan.

Passhe leaders also say that the system’s union contracts have made it tough to maintain their institutions’ sometimes shaky bottom lines. Mansfield University cut its labor force by almost 7 percent last year to help close a projected $8-million budget gap, says General Hendricks, the president, only to be hit with increased labor costs from a new faculty contract: "We watched all that water that we bailed out of the boat come right back in."

The system’s labor agreement with faculty also contains limitations on dismissing or reassigning professors that may make it difficult to substantially shift how its universities deliver instruction in a revamped Passhe.

But Passhe’s problems have nothing to do with its unions, according to Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, known as Apscuf, which represents the system’s faculty. The financial straits affecting many of the system’s institutions stem from crumbling state support (only about 24 percent of Clarion University’s annual operating budget now comes from the commonwealth, for example), and from bad choices made by the leaders of individual institutions, he says. "It’s easy to say that this university or that university is failing, but is it really failing, or are the conditions such that it just can’t succeed?" he says. He adds that union-contract strictures provide an important check on "business mentality" decisions about the course of Passhe’s universities. System leaders "should be required to justify why what they’re doing is necessary," he says.

In the end, resolving these complications — or even electing to face them — comes down to political will. "You can do a great review, you can do a great study," Mr. Brogan says. "But if the powers that be don’t want it to happen, it either won’t get off the ground or it will crash and burn immediately after takeoff."

The state’s elected officials are ready to shake up Passhe, according to David G. Argall, a Republican state senator. The enrollment statistics for the system convinced him and many of his legislative colleagues that the status quo can’t endure. Mr. Argall was the lead sponsor of the measure that called for the Senate Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to review Passhe. The committee’s review will not be completed until months after Passhe’s review, but Mr. Argall says he’s "hopeful that they come up with very similar answers. This way we can say to everyone we have looked under every rock, we’ve asked every possible question."

Even if there is consensus among decision makers, Mr. Brogan says he expects that there will be objections, opposition, and arguments over what happens to Passhe and its institutions. He hopes that all parties to the discussion can put their own turf concerns aside and think about the bigger picture. The outcome of this process could determine not only the fate of 14 universities, their faculties, and their students, it could set the course for higher education in Pennsylvania for future generations.

"This thing’s going to long outlive the chancellor," Mr. Brogan says. "It’s going to outlive any of the 14 presidents. It’s going to outlive most of the people in the General Assembly. And therefore it needs to be designed with the best interests of those to come."

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.