Higher ed in America is primarily a state-based system. That’s something we regularly emphasize as we pitch the importance of putting local reporters on this beat around the nation. Part of what makes it hard to cover from a national vantage point is just how different various states are when it comes to the history, politics, and geography that have shaped their public systems.
There’s no better example than Pennsylvania. It has one of the nation’s top research universities (Penn State), which then has 20 branch campuses. It has Temple and Pitt — which, along with Penn State, have an unusual legal arrangement in which they are considered “state-related universities,” not normal public institutions. Finally, the state has a system of 14 regional public universities — most of which were created as local teachers colleges. That system, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, enrolls roughly 93,000 students and has long been a poster child for the challenges facing regional publics.
Right now, several of those colleges are facing existential threats as enrollments have fallen and deficits are rising. This week Lee Gardner, a senior writer at The Chronicle, takes stock of the campaign
the chancellor is waging to transform the system. The bottom line:
Daniel Greenstein wants to consolidate six of the 14 institutions into two new institutions — one in the western part of the state and another in the northeast.
Given the way the system operates, the weakest universities are essentially drags on the strongest. Greenstein, who previously ran postsecondary grant-making at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told Lee those types of subsidies can’t continue.
If one train car falls over a cliff, “it pulls harder on all the other trains.” If nothing changes, he adds, the system’s financial reserves will be completely exhausted by 2027.