APSCUF live-tweeted last month’s State System budget-appropriations hearings before the Senate and House of Representatives. Watch both sessions in their entirety on our YouTube channel. Together, the hearings last about five hours, so we’ve compiled the segments we thought were of most interest to APSCUF members. Here are the highlights (and lowlights) from the House.

Some background: Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education’s Board of Governors requested a 2017–18 appropriation of $505.2 million, an increase of $61 million. In his address in February, Gov. Tom Wolf announced $8.9 million more for our 14 universities in his budget proposal.

Chancellor Frank Brogan, Bloomsburg University President David Soltz, and Logan Steigerwalt, Board of Governors nominee and Slippery Rock University student, responded to legislators’ questions.

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Rep. Stan Saylor, House appropriations chairman, began, “Our state-owned universities are a valuable asset to our Commonwealth, but that doesn’t mean that we should accept the status quo. With the changing economy, our universities must be responsive to today’s job market, and our primary focus as elected officials should be ensuring that our young people have access to higher-quality education and sustaining jobs. … During these hearings we’re looking forward to hearing about how we can graduate students with good job opportunities in Pennsylvania and how PASSHE is working to reinvent itself and how PASSHE is retooling the way it delivers higher education. We also need to reexamine whether the current complement of universities is necessary to meet today’s post-secondary education needs.”

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Rep. Karen Boback asked Brogan to expand on a statement from the material the State System provided to representatives: “To ensure the system will thrive in the future, the universities will need the continued support of the commonwealth and its taxpayers. Simply providing more money, however, will not solve the challenge facing the universities.” She also asked in what ways the chancellor would change the State System if it were up to him and what help legislators can give.

“Simply saying, ‘We’ll keep finding more money,’ is not only difficult, it is improbable to support exactly the same system,” Brogan said. He mentioned the baby boom echo, declining demographics in Pennsylvania, regional market problems, and declining state revenue. He also outlined the purpose of the State System’s strategic review.

“How do we look at our system for purposes of deciding what it should look like going forward to guarantee sustainability, individually and collectively as institutions, and to make sure that on the academic side of the ledger that we are organized in terms of our academic program array with differentiated missions for our universities, tamping down unnecessary redundancy, and assuring that students will have availability continued of a high-quality, affordable educational experience that has to plug within the future of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Brogan said. He emphasized legislators’ involvement in the system and the input they would have in its strategic review. He mentioned the State System’s $61 million request, which it submitted in October “even before we closed out collective bargaining.”

“So even though it’s 61, it actually ballooned beyond that over time,” Brogan said. “But we don’t say that 61 is your obligation. I make this case: Those bills have to be paid within the revenue that we end up having. … That is the need, and how we all work together to accomplish meeting that need will be decided over the course of the next several months.”

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Rep. Donna Bullock lauded the upward mobility higher education can facilitate. She decried Senate education chair Sen. John Eichelberger’s comments at a town hall the previous week. She asked Brogan if he agreed with the statement that the commonwealth is misspending money by encouraging students to pursue higher education, about the makeup of students at State System universities, and about student success.

Brogan described the system’s student population as generally “economically fragile.” The State System provides high-quality opportunities for students of all backgrounds, and Brogan is proud of how the State System provides an opportunity for “something better,” he said. He also mentioned concerns about rising juniors and seniors “stopping out” to procure more money to finish their schooling, which can lead to not returning at all.

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Rep. Nick Miccarelli asked about tuition rates and cost-cutting, and Brogan explained changes some universities are making even before the results of the system’s study. He outlined the system’s “three-legged stool” of revenue creation: appropriations, student tuition and fees, and cuts to existing budgets.

Miccarelli also inquired about the amount the State System spends on “illegal immigrants.” Brogan explained domicile requirements for tuition rates.

“So, generally speaking, that benefit that is there for Pennsylvania taxpayers is there for anyone who lives in Pennsylvania, whether they are a taxpaying citizen or not?” Miccarelli asked. Brogan reiterated the domicile requirements. “And do you know how much the taxpayers of Pennsylvania spend on educating illegal immigrants? … I did see something in the same packet saying there’s a no-status check box for some of the universities that they can just say that they have no status here in the United States. That to me sounds like a bit of security concern if we don’t know who’s a citizen going to our schools and who isn’t.”

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Rep. Madeleine Dean echoed Bullock’s “grave disappointment” in Eichelberger’s comments and described her higher-education background.

“An education is power for the future, and it is the economic engine for this state,” she said, then asked what the State System is doing to combat enrollment declines.

The system is looking at new markets and must move away from “large buffets of academic offerings,” Brogan said.

“Some people, when I say that, say, ‘So you mean giant vocational-technical schools?’ No, not at all,” he said. “We still have to offer undergraduate courses, general education courses, elective courses along the way, but each university in our system to maintain their importance to the Commonwealth also at the same time needs to provide greater focus on what exactly it is they want to contribute to the future of the Commonwealth.”

Brogan referred to the State System’s supply-demand gap analysis.

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Steigerwalt called the State System “an excellent opportunity” and “a very cost-efficient means of getting a high-quality education.” He highlighted the small faculty-student ratio at Slippery Rock.

“It’s huge to be able to interact with your professors on a case-by-case basis and the ability to have them become mentors towards you,” he said. He also lauded experiences outside the classroom, compared with larger schools.

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Rep. Stephen Kinsey, a West Chester University graduate, discussed enrollment trends and his alma mater’s use of marketing. He suggested increasing the bonds between Philadelphia-area schools and, in particular, Cheyney University.

“Marketing, as you might imagine, is an essential part of what we do,” Brogan replied. “It’s a word that sort of flies in the face of higher education, especially for a system that for a long time would open the doors and turn on the lights and be full. Bucking the trend that is now existing, which are declining enrollments makes marketing even more important to new markets — out of state, different parts of the state — than traditionally that university went to.”

Soltz elaborated on Bloomsburg’s targeting of nontraditional students and transfer students versus a total focus on new high school graduates.

Kinsey asked for an update of the plan for permanent leadership for Cheyney University.

“A leadership look is gonna be very important to that,” Brogan said, referring to the previous day’s decision about Cheyney University. “Finding the right person who can come in and lead the charge on that change in direction is gonna be essential to us. But I think also the board sent a very important message out there: that there intends to be a Cheyney and make that search a little bit more palatable to interested, qualified parties.”

Kinsey used his final seconds of allotted time to ask directly: “Were there plans, are there plans, to close Cheyney University?”

“No,” Brogan replied. “Yesterday what the board did was to provide one more round of transitional funding with the statement that the plan that is currently on the table is gonna require years of additional funding that the system just doesn’t have any more and therefore in the time remaining for that transitional period, we’re gonna have to pivot for a new model for Cheyney that will very quickly see revenue match expenditures, and thus creating a future for the institution that is sustainable.”

“So does that mean there’s no plan to close Cheyney University?” Kinsey asked again.

“There is not,” Brogan replied.

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Rep. Brad Roae commented on average cost per student, focusing on Cheyney University.

“When the whole system is very, very financially fragile, are we gonna let the whole system collapse and all 14 of them close, or are we gonna try to save the ones we can?” Roae asked. “Are we gonna try to get the schools that need more aid per student, are we gonna try to get them down closer to that, you know, $4,300 average? What’s the plan as far as that goes?”

Brogan responded, “The approach to dealing with declining enrollment and declining state revenue and inability and event lack of desire to just automatically transfer that onto students has not met the nexus with the typical university approach to all of those things, which is to continue to do what we’ve always done, exactly the way we’ve always done it, with the same number of people and hopefully grow back in to what we used to be. The good old days, as I call them. … That is exactly the problem that we have faced. The math is swamping that boat. … This review and the recommendations for change that come as a result of it, representative, must give us, at the end of the pipe, institutions that are sustainable for the revenues they generate both from our appropriation — 400 and some-odd million dollars from the state, and whatever is generated through tuition and fees. We cannot make a living off of moving money from other universities to financially distressed institutions, at least on the long-term side. … And that’s got to be the predicate upon which we build this review and the expectations coming out of it.”

Roae closed by asking “how much more expensive is it now than it would have been without that new contract?” referring to APSCUF’s faculty agreement.

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Rep. Patty Kim discussed upward mobility and affordability, and she asked what the State System is doing to help students continue on.

Brogan explained price-pointing and the flexibility the State System now allows individual universities, including per-credit tuition. He said the State System is “tracking the metrics” to make sure per-credit tuition is “not having any negative impacts on enrollment and also to see if there are any positive impacts.” (Click here to read APSCUF’s stance on per-credit tuition, and click here to read some interviews in which APSCUF President Dr. Kenneth M. Mash discusses per-credit tuition.)

“We all know this: If you can graduate in four years instead of five, you’re gonna save a boatload of money,” Brogan said. He said the State System’s average family income is about $85,000 a year. The State System is working hard to address the problem of rising juniors and seniors leaving to make more money to pay for school — but not returning — and is targeting scholarships at juniors and seniors, he said.

“The amount of advising and counseling done by our folks at our universities — and that obviously includes faculty, they are important to that process — reviewing regularly the student transcript to see are they on track, are they taking the courses that will help them not only to get a degree but to get a degree as expeditiously as possible, is really a lifeline of helping people get through the system of higher ed,” Brogan said.

He highlighted that the State System’s students’ default rate on student loans is lower than the national average.

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Rep. Warren Kampf also asked about contract-related costs for 2017–18. Brogan responded with the cost for all units, $49 million. Kampf followed by asking about “savings.” Brogan described changes to the healthcare coverage. Kampf pressed for specifics. Lois Johnson, associate vice chancellor for administration and finance with the State System, described APSCUF healthcare changes.

“I have a constituent who educates me a little bit on higher-ed matters, and he indicates that the trend has been to go to part-time faculty,” Kampf said to Soltz. “Some of that is for cost-saving purposes, you know, adjunct faculty and whatnot. Can you give me a flavor on your campus whether that’s going on? Do you find it useful? Is it a problem?”

Soltz explained the 25 percent adjunct cap of the APSCUF contract and that Bloomsburg and most State System universities are close to but below that threshold.

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It should concern everyone that State System is so expensive for students, Rep. Kevin J. Boyle said. He pointed out the effect of former Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget cuts.

“I believe so passionately in education,” Boyle said. “Not just because it makes better human beings, but also if you’re gonna compete in the global economy of 2017, you need to have a college education.”

He commented on the high cost of public higher education in Pennsylvania and asked Brogan, “I wanted to see what your opinion was of the devastating effect that our inability as a legislature and a state to fund your operations, how does that impair you in comparison to other states, particularly states here in the northeastern United States who fund their state education colleges much more than we do?”

Brogan said revenue streams and sources were things the State System needs to review during its study.

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“Affordability is not always just trying to find out how to get students more money to pay for the cost that keeps going up,” Brogan said. “It’s also about the cost of the product and trying to see if we can hold down costs of what we do. That’s how you create real affordability. Just finding new money to give to people to keep paying for more is masking the real issue of affordability. So as we review this thing, that issue of sustainability, and I hate to beat a dead horse, I’m maybe doing it, but if we come out that review and change the system to first require that those universities that are a part of it must operate within the revenues they generate and cannot bet on the come as we have been prone to do over years by saying we can keep writing checks we can’t cash, but we’ll figure out how to do that later on and ofttimes pass those costs onto families and individual students, it’s not a sustainable model. It won’t work, and the math will catch up with you. It’s catching up with us now. And so by virtue of that fact, while, yes, we’re always on the hunt for new ways to help students fund their higher-educational experience — nobody, as I mentioned, should lose a higher-educational experience for the want of $1,000 that they can’t get their hands on — but at the same time, that doesn’t solve the real problem, which is the continued, escalating costs, pensions and healthcare, general rate of inflation. And again, we are 80-some-odd percent of our budgets are people. We’re in the people business, and the rising costs of compensation and benefits continues to march forward.”

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Rep. Sheryl M. Delozier asked for clarification about the costs of the contract increases. She also asked about reserves for school struggling financially.

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Rep. Jerry Knowles, a graduate of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, asked what percent of students get jobs in their field after graduating. About 75 percent move into gainful employment, Brogan said, according to the State System’s survey data.

“Based on the fact that the kids from Thaddeus Stevens are getting jobs — as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders — might any of the 14 schools within your organization, might they consider the Thaddeus Stevens route, the Thaddeus Stevens model?” Knowles asked.

Brogan shared Clarion University’s announcement “that they are pivoting to become a professional degree-granting institution based largely on their region — teaching, nursing, business degrees.”

“Because again they have over the years evolved into offering a wide array of degrees and programs and courses,” Brogan said. “They recognize that if they’re gonna contribute not only more graduates but also graduates who can move to jobs and with the resources they have available that they desperately need to focus those resources on becoming more of a professional institution.”

Of the entire system, Brogan said, “At some point, you have to take stock of just how much you can offer and become more specific once again in terms of a differentiated mission for each of the universities.”

The two discussed vocational-technical training and opportunities for students after high school.

“Advanced vocational-technical training, community college, college, university, advanced degrees — there needs to be a buffet of opportunities out there after high school available to anybody who wants it or needs it,” Brogan said.

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Rep. Mary Jo Daley expressed her concerns about the need for food pantries for students. Brogan said the issue “bubbled up to the surface” when state funding was frozen.

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Rep. Fred Keller, after another contract-related clarification, asked when the State System started its review, when it will be complete, and when the system identified the need for a review.

“About 1972, I think,” Brogan answered to the latter question. “People have been talking about this idea for a long time in the Commonwealth. Its time finally came, and urgency created that.”

Keller commented on increasing costs to students and student debt.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure we’re managing the resources effectively,” he said. He followed by asking what the State System has done to reduce costs.

Brogan replied, “In our case, we’ve got during this study to move to the heart of the issue, which is, ‘What is costing us more and more, and how can we keep those costs down to the greatest degree?’ so that we don’t have to pass them along to students while also working with you to try to constantly review the appropriation and make sure it’s appropriate for the time.”

Keller asked about the typical debt load of a student leaving the State System. Brogan said the average is $32,000, paid off over about 10 years.

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Rep. Tim Briggs said he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that demographics changed when the state cut a massive amount of funding from State System.

“We need to do a better job of providing the resources needed,” Briggs said.

Brogan interjected to address the study.

“We not only are gonna be looking at our system within the context of this study, review, and recommendations for change,” Brogan said. “If we stop there and we don’t look at things beyond our control that are also impacting the way we do business, we will only be rearranging deck chairs. We have to look at legislation. We have to look at rules, regulations, contract issues.”

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Rep. Marguerite Quinn praised the State System’s proactivity with regard to healthcare benefits.

“I know last year we talked about the idea of conducting a dependent-benefit audit to ensure that those people who are receiving the wonderful, taxpayer-funded benefits are actually eligible for them,” Quinn said. “I did not see mention of that … if that’s not been included, I want to encourage you to look into that, especially for public jobs like your staff, faculty, etc. National statistics are pretty high for what they call ‘slippage’ on that.”

Brogan assured Quinn the System does so routinely.

Quinn also asked about building projects for schools in “more vulnerable positions.”

“As you might imagine, with capital dollars being hard to come by and our facilities being the age that they are a much higher premium has been placed on renovation and remodeling over new construction,” Brogan said. He confirmed that some projects are on hold, pending the study results.

Distance education also is a factor, he continued.

“If we’re not careful, we’re gonna end up with a lot of mothballed buildings that we built knowing that distance education was gonna have a growing impact on the whole landscape of higher education and remote sites being utilized,” Brogan said.

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Rep. Marty Flynn prefaced his questions with interrupted statements about Trump University and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“What sort of changes can we expect coming from Washington, D.C., for our PASSHE schools, based on the administration’s past experience with education?” Flynn asked.

“We have no idea,” Brogan replied, adding that all of higher education await answers to those questions.

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Rep. Jim Christiana questioned the quality of State System education related to enrollment and graduation rates. He listed some statistics and mentioned an article about Edinboro University.

“Are those statistics, do they represent high quality, Mr. Chancellor?” Christiana asked.

Brogan said the two are not mutually exclusive.

“It is possible to offer a high-quality educational experience and yet at the same time, sadly, bump up against the open-enrollment mentality that says the more students we have, the more money we get,” Brogan said. “That is sort of one of the big problems that higher education faces today. We’re not just accidentally having a conversation about declining enrollment because the declining enrollment is tied to less revenue. What Edinboro has finally announced with their new president — and rightfully so — is whatever the number of students that we believe are qualified to be in our university, that’s the number of students we need to organize around and stop taking anyone who applies to the institution. There’s a balancing act there. You don’t want to slam the door on people who might have a shot, have the potential to have a shot, but saying we accepted 99 percent of those who applied, you’d better start asking yourself, unless you are Oxford, you’d better start asking yourself the question, ‘Are the students we’re taking in qualified to be here?’”

Christiana asked if the State System planned to incorporate Edinboro’s changes systemwide. Brogan described the system’s new tool, the financial-risk assessment, for each university.

“Would you agree that when a student realizes in years four, five, and six that he or she is incapable of obtaining their degree, do you agree that represents the difficult reality that we have failed that student, their families, the taxpayer, the Commonwealth as a whole when 50 percent of students are incapable of receiving their degree?” Christiana asked.

Brogan said it depends on why, but that the State System’s primary motivation should be guaranteeing it is possible to graduate in four or five years “and make sure we’re not the problem.” He said he would like to see a tighter collaboration between community colleges and the State System.

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In closing, Saylor asked, “As you go through your review process I know this summer, you have not decided as a board of trustees that you will not close any school? You have left that possibility open, that you may close a school or multiple schools, if necessary?”

“We went bigger than that just by saying, ‘Everything has to be on the table,’” Brogan replied. “We’re not advocating that. We have no plans to do that, but we believe the best way to approach this was to say there are no sacred cows, that we need to look at the whole system and try to make the right decisions going forward. But I can also tell you, because I work with them all the time, the board is not looking at closing any universities at this point. They would prefer to see repointing, reinvention to maintain sustainability, as was the case with Cheyney yesterday.”

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With the hearings complete, our work in advocating for fair funding of our universities has just begun. APSCUF is working to make Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed $8.9 million appropriations increase — or more — stick in the 2017–18 budget.

APSCUF launched a series of graphics on social media, detailing how our 14 state-owned universities serve all Commonwealth residents and why an investment in our State System is an investment in the entire state. Please retweet and share the graphics on your social media accounts. Use the hashtag #fundPAfuture when posting about the Pennsylvania budget and the future of our universities.