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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s state university system is vastly different today than it was just five years ago when it began the process of overhauling to meet the challenges that have tested the survival of some of its universities.

Initially, a good part of its focus was trying to keep all of its campuses financially afloat. On Thursday, officials of the state higher education system announced at their quarterly board meeting that they are now ready to move into the next phase of its ongoing transformation.

In this new phase, attention is turning to enrolling more students in its universities for degrees and non-degrees and training graduates to meet the state’s manpower needs for make Pennsylvania economically competitive.

“We are well prepared to go in this direction,” system chancellor Dan Greenstein told the board.

Priorities identified in this new phase include improving student retention and graduation rates and attracting students who may be college-ready but not enrolling or those with incomplete or working adults seeking an industry degree to advance their careers.

In addition, the objectives it has set for the next three years aim to keep the cost of attendance within reach of a greater number of students, to continue to support its universities according to their financial means, to develop the system’s partnership with the State and to invest in its teaching staff. and staff to meet student needs.

“The future of the system really depends on our ability to transform ourselves,” said Cynthia Shapira, who was re-elected chair of the system’s board of directors at the meeting. “We must do our part by increasing our efforts to get students in and out and direct them towards successful careers or advanced programs. It’s our job.

Earlier this month, efforts to overhaul the system saw its size shrink by four universities through the consolidation of six of its universities into two institutions. These consolidations remain a work in progress although they are admitting their first cohort of students this fall.

The system is also on track for all of its universities to achieve and maintain financial stability. Many governance and leadership changes have been made and the accountability of the system has been strengthened. And four years ago, he demonstrated his commitment to making student affordability a higher priority by keeping the tuition limit at $7,716 for in-state undergraduates for two semesters while by urging the state to invest in more direct support for students.

This all stems from demands by the legislature for more accountability, accessibility, and affordability of the public university system.

Responding to those requests, the vice chairman of the system’s board of trustees, Sam Smith, a former speaker of the State House, said it helped restore lawmakers’ confidence in the system’s leadership, as evidenced by the increase of $75 million – or 16% – in base system funding to $552.5. million in the recently passed 2022-23 state budget.

Additionally, the system received as part of the budget a one-time investment of $125 million from the U.S. federal bailout to assist in its overhaul efforts which builds on a one-time investment of $50 million from this same pool of money last year.

“We demonstrated our responsibility for the dollars they gave us and that was not the case for many years,” said Smith. “That system was in pretty bad shape.”

Prior to the overhaul, he said the system faced the possibility of having to close one or two under-enrolled universities or arguably bankrupt the entire system of universities subsidizing their sister schools financially at risk.

But system leaders say that with the myriad transformational measures it has undertaken on an aggressive timeline — a timeline that continues to give professors heartburn — it is ready to move into its next phase and Greenstein is delighted.

“We are truly at a watershed moment where we have an opportunity, the opportunity that so many of us have fought so hard for and worked so hard to achieve and it is here,” said the chancellor.

Faculty union president Ken Mash said some of his faculty colleagues were also excited to begin work associated with the goals of this new phase. At the same time, it’s hard on them when they know there are 27 of their former colleagues on furlough in 2020 waiting to be recalled and others who have been told to expect their positions disappear at the end of the 2023-24 season. academic year.

It has a demoralizing effect on faculty ranks as well as a lasting effect, Mash said.

“Faculty recruitment becomes more difficult because the institution now has a reputation for turning its back on that trust that people expect,” Mash told the council pleading with them to work to find positions for those who have been or will be displaced.

Greenstein said afterwards that he recognized the importance of the faculty and the impact these professional actions had on them. But he said they were necessary in light of the situation the system faced and which it is working to resolve through its overhaul efforts.

“The overhaul is about financially stabilizing the system to rebuild our trust with the state to generate the investment we need to invest in our people. It’s really simple. said Greenstein. “The pace of change has been huge but… it’s good now that our owners believe in us. It’s a promising start.

As for enrollments, Greenstein said it’s still early days, but some of the system’s universities could see enrollments return to or perhaps exceed pre-pandemic levels. Last year the system saw the biggest drop in more than two decades, falling to 88,651 students.

Universities in the system include Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester as well as the California, Clarion and Edinboro campuses of Pennsylvania Western University and the Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield campuses of Commonwealth University .

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