The Oct. 13–14 Board of Governors meeting took place in person and via Zoom and is streaming via YouTube. Below are APSCUF President Dr. Jamie Martin’s comments as prepared.
Chairwoman Shapira, Chancellor Greenstein, governors, university presidents and guests,
As always, I appreciate the opportunity to present remarks on behalf of the nearly 5,000 faculty and coaches that APSCUF represents. I would like to focus on a number of interrelated issues this afternoon: the enrollments at our universities, the funding of our universities, and the affordability of our universities.
Let’s start with the first: the enrollment numbers for the current academic year. We learned that enrollment dropped by approximately 5.4% systemwide and that the decline in enrollment was more significant at a number of universities. After about a 2% decline in enrollment last year, I am not surprised to see an ongoing pandemic effect. There may be some students who did not enroll in in-person classes because of concerns about pivoting to online learning. It is possible that some of our students’ parents are out of work or that students may have stayed in the workforce full time because of the number of jobs available now. It is possible that the uncertainty surrounding the consolidation played a role in the decline at the universities involved in this plan, and that retrenchments on our campuses had an impact. But what we are seeing here is similar to what is happening nationwide, and I expect that we will see the trend reverse in the next academic year. I am asking all of us — collectively — to not push the panic button. If our current and prospective students and their families see us panic, it could have a deleterious effect on next year’s enrollments.
Act 188 of 1982 was the enabling legislation for Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. This legislation laid out, among other things, the purpose of our universities:
“The State System of Higher Education shall be part of the Commonwealth’s system of higher education. Its purpose shall be to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost to the students.”
To accomplish this mission, the State System must be appropriately funded: The General Assembly must be willing to invest in our students. The support for the State System reached a highwater mark in 2010–11 of around $503 million — and then we suffered an 18% cut in appropriations from which we are still trying to recover. While we appreciate the funding that we do receive, the fact of the matter is that in the last 20 years, support for PASSHE has increased by only 1.25%.
Not surprisingly, the percentage of the cost of attendance that is covered by state appropriations has decreased dramatically. In 1990, state appropriations covered nearly 75% of the cost of attendance for our students. Last year, that amount dropped to approximately 24%. Think about that for a moment: Students are now responsible for 75% of the cost of attendance — at our state-owned universities. It is true that the cost of attendance at our universities has outpaced inflation, but the appropriations that PASSHE receives have not come close to trending with inflation. In fact, if they had kept pace, the current appropriations should be around $740 million.
So, what does this mean for the students of our Commonwealth? The ones who were promised by Act 188 the ability to attend a state-owned university and to receive a high quality education at the lowest possible cost. It means that these universities are no longer affordable for them. Can we ponder for a moment what the lack of affordability may mean to them?
Does it impact their ability to afford their books or technology? Does it impact their ability to afford to take an unpaid internship that could greatly benefit their career trajectory? Does it impact their ability to afford enough food, to afford to get enough sleep as they work multiple jobs, or to afford to be enrolled full time? After graduation, does it mean the inability to afford a car, or a home, or a family as they pay off mountains of student debt?
Affordability can mean many different things to many students, but I firmly believe that this is a contributing factor to our enrollment decline. Most importantly, research shows that the lack of affordability is disproportionately impacting students from primarily from low-income backgrounds, students of color and first-generation students — and these are the students that our system should be serving.
We are at an inflection point, and a very important question must be addressed: Are the universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education state-owned and state-supported universities — or not? Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 states in per-capita investment in higher education. Again, we are at an inflection point: The State System needs to be adequately funded — or we should stop pretending that we are a state-supported system.
I believe that the enrollment decline is the result of a perfect storm. The ongoing pandemic has wreaked havoc, and I think we are witnessing pandemic fatigue among our students. There is uncertainty on some of our campuses, and the fact that our state-owned universities are not adequately funded by the Commonwealth does not help enrollment. When students must take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, enrolling in our universities is a more difficult financial decision. I’m fearful about what is going to happen moving forward: Inadequate funding only fuels a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious cycle of enrollment decline.
Tomorrow, the chancellor will present to the BOG his recommendation for the appropriations request for PASSHE. We hope that he will recommend a significant increase in funding for our universities and that the board will support it. As you know, APSCUF has always been a strong advocate for additional funding for our State System, and we will continue that work — and we are willing to work in tandem with the State System to make the case for the need for it.
Thank you again for the opportunity to offer remarks today.