1829 map of Pennsylvania. (Library of Congress)

Too many weak links

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we try to highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this, you can sign up for your own copy here. 

Keystone Lessons

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.

I caught up with Lee for a bit more about what’s going on in Pennsylvania and why it might matter in other places.

Are these type of mergers going to be the answer around the country? I’ve written several stories poking at whether or not consolidations actually do what states and systems hope they’re going to do—the evidence is pretty scant that they save much money, improve outcomes, etc. But I think Dan Greenstein makes a pretty good argument that, for PASSHE, consolidations may be better than the available alternatives. See also that quip about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others.

Pennsylvania has a unique structure and faces some unusual challenges. Can the rest of the country still learn from what’s happening there? The challenges facing many public comprehensive universities are complex and intractable, and if there were easy solutions that everyone would love, someone probably would have fixed them already. Once the details of the PASSHE plan emerge, and if it finds some success, it could help serve as a guide for other systems contemplating similar moves. Or it could all wind up as a giant cautionary case study.

What’s the central challenge facing Greenstein? When he arrived at PASSHE, he was a fresh new face coming in with an impressive resume and a lot of energy and sincerity, and I think everyone wanted him to do well. He even built a fairly good relationship in the first year or two with the faculty union, which has had a very contentious relationship with system leadership. The honeymoon’s long over now. The ultimate success of this plan lies with the faculty. They’ve had to try to figure out how to fit the institutions together academically, and they’re the ones who are going to have to cooperate and make it all come together and work. It doesn’t seem like he has the level of buy-in necessary to make that a smooth and painless process.

—Scott Smallwood

+ Sara wrote about myths about about regional publics earlier this year.

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Pittsburgh, Naomi Harris talks with four people at the city’s universities about their experiences with anti-Asian racism and how they’re trying to heal.

A recent survey of El Paso Community College students found that two out of five experienced food insecurity. Jewél Jackson reports on how local leaders and state lawmakers are trying to help.

Northeast Ohio has a pipeline problem, Amy Morona reports. A state program, Choose Ohio First, is working to expand the talent pool in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine by enrolling more students in those fields and trying to keep more of them nearby after graduation. Right now the region retains fewer than 47 percent of its college graduates each year.

After a pause in the pandemic, tuition is increasing again at most Mississippi universities, Molly Minta reports. This fall, a typical family will spend 18 percent of their annual income to pay the average tuition at Mississippi’s public universities.

It’s been just over a year now since we started working with our first local reporter, Jason Gonzales, at Chalkbeat Colorado. This week, he’s kicking off a monthly newsletter, Beyond High School, about going to college in Colorado. You can sign up for it here.

“The chance to cover this beat in Colorado is a dream,” Jason writes in his first newsletter. “I grew up here, and I went to college here too — on a Pell grant. So the issues I write about — who gets to go to college, who manages to finish, what the state is and isn’t doing to support people along the way — are deeply personal to me.”

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Spotlight


Flagship universities fail to enroll Black and Latino high school graduates from their state
At the majority of flagship universities, the percentage of Black and Latino students who enroll each fall is well below that of the state’s public high school graduates. (Hechinger Report)

What other states can learn from Michigan about serving adult students

Lawmakers and colleges there have been instituting policies that remove financial barriers for this often-overlooked population. (Higher Ed Dive)

UT-Austin says Longhorn Band members must play ‘The Eyes of Texas’ or else join new, separate band
The university is starting a separate student marching band that will not perform at major university events or have a required repertoire of songs. (Texas Tribune)

The faces of higher education’s historic layoffs

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education has suffered its greatest job losses on record. The Chronicle tells the stories of some of the people affected. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Keep in Touch

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There are gaps not just in where higher ed is being covered but also in what is being covered. So we’re excited to announce that this summer we’ll be hiring three national reporters to cover critical topics that are under-scrutinized.