HARRISBURG — Some officials say Tuesday’s proposed legislation opens up a long-overdue discussion on funding for state universities.

State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, and Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, Tuesday in Harrisburg proposed legislation that would allow universities meeting certain criteria to transfer out of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Senate Bill 1275 would give universities in the system greater independence and flexibility in meeting financial and enrollment challenges.

State Sen. Rich Alloway, R-33, whose district includes Shippensburg University, said the bill, if anything, starts to address problems the state system currently faces.

“This ... is the start of a discussion that’s long overdue,” said Alloway, who is on PASSHE’s board of governors. “The state system has been in a financial crunch for a number of years. We can’t continue on the path that we’re on.”

Alloway said the bill addresses the uneven nature of how the state system funds its 14 universities, which are Shippensburg, Millersville, Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Slippery Rock and West Chester. Universities that are doing well, such as Shippensburg and West Chester, end up giving their extra funding to the system, and that funding goes to another school, Alloway said, noting that Tomlinson is a West Chester University graduate.

Giving and taking

Tomlinson and Dinniman, as well as other senators, including Alloway and Sen. Pat Vance, R-31, who supported the bipartisan legislation, released fact sheets regarding the state system’s universities and their finances. On a five-year average, the annual operating margin for Cheyney was in the negative (-0.80 percent), while West Chester had a margin of 9.44 percent. Shippensburg was in the middle with a 3.06 percent margin, while Edinboro (0.01 percent), Mansfield (1.20 percent), Clarion (2.01 percent) and California University of Pennsylvania (2.19 percent) were on the lower end of the spectrum. On the higher end with West Chester were Kutztown (6.46 percent), Lock Haven (5.61 percent) and Bloomsburg (4.87 percent).

Proponents say many universities on the lower end of the margin spectrum ended up on the higher end of funding received by all the schools. In fiscal year 2012-13, Cheyney received $12,505 per full-time resident student, Mansfield received $7,699 and Edinboro received $4,476. West Chester received the lowest with $3,909 per full-time resident student, while Bloomsburg ($3,979) and Millersville ($3,981) were also on the lower end of funding. Shippensburg was again in the middle, receiving $4,256 per full-time resident student.

“I am concerned by what appears to be a potential house of cards in terms of both finances and demographics,” said Dinniman, who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s not just about making up the money; it’s about attracting more students. And I am concerned that the state system may be engaging in a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Effects of transfer

The bill would basically allow the well-performing schools to back out of the system — which proponents say will allow schools to keep their funding and stabilize tuition costs, which would not be bound by other struggling schools in the state system.

To transfer out of the state system, a school would have to meet these criteria: a student enrollment of more than 7,000, an unqualified audit opinion for three years, the financial ability to compensate the state for the depreciated value of its property, and continued contributions to the employer share for pension obligations.

Shippensburg University officials say its current enrollment is 6,046 undergraduates and 1,007 graduate students.

While that may prove beneficial to the schools doing well, there is a question of what happens to schools left behind.

Proponents say the current level of funding from the state would provide more funding for the remaining schools in the system, which would also receive additional funding through sale of buildings and land. However, PASSHE officials questioned the bill’s true effect on schools.

“A primary concern is that for any university that leaves the state system, tuition and fees will likely go up, as was confirmed in the press conference (Tuesday),” PASSHE Chancellor Frank T. Brogan said in a statement. “This would create an added burden for students and their families. Every university that leaves the state system could close another door to affordable, quality public higher education.”

Opponents like state Rep. Mike Hanna, the House Democratic whip, say such legislation would not tackle the main issue facing PASSHE: budget cuts.

“Permitting schools to leave the state system doesn’t make the school stronger, or the system stronger,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “The underlying issue here is that our state schools have suffered unprecedented cuts under the current administration. Secession may be a short-term fix at a time when Pennsylvania needs a long-term solution.”

Ongoing issue

PASSHE is currently evaluating the bill, which was not available for them Tuesday to review. Whichever way the bill goes in the legislature, Alloway said he hopes this begins to address the problems with the way the state system functions.

“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “We want the Shippensburg community, the Shippensburg University community to be involved. We want to take this to the trustees — we want student input, faculty input.”

B. Michael Shaul, president of the SU Council of Trustees, said the bill provides an alternative to ongoing issues with PASSHE.

“As we go down the road, we’ll keep watching the alternatives (available to us),” he said. “As higher education is changing, we have to worry about our students and our Shippensburg community. It’s not just the students, but (also) the region. We’re going to make the best choices we can possibly make.”

Shaul said the trustees welcome a bit of autonomy from PASSHE on certain issues, but he noted Brogan had, in his short time as chancellor, already moved to delegate some power back to the university.

PASSHE also postponed a vote on a system-wide gun safety policy that would force all universities to have the same policy when it comes to disallowing weapons on campus and in certain buildings. At a hearing, the policy was attacked by students and staff at the universities for being too vague and for taking the power away from the individual universities. PASSHE decided to table discussion on the policy, and PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said there is no time frame on when, or if, that policy will move forward.

Whatever alternatives remain open for individual universities, Tomlinson said something has to be done soon to correct the way the state system works.

“The current funding structure for PASSHE is unsustainable — and now is the time to address the issue for the sake of students, communities and our universities,” Tomlinson said in a statement. “Allowing universities to transition to a state-related institution will provide greater flexibility to respond to local community, business and workforce needs — while providing more funds for remaining PASSHE schools.”

Email Naomi Creason at ncreason@cumberlink.com or follow her on Twitter @SentinelCreason

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