Faced with budget cuts and a difficult economy, presidents at Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities have been seeking greater fiscal autonomy.
Last Thursday, some of those wishes were answered when the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's board of governors approved a new flexible tuition policy.
The policy represents a first step in allowing schools to begin to set their own tuition rates within certain parameters.
It also addresses a longer-term concern: How schools will attract students in the face of a declining college-age population.
State schools have long been able to offer out-of-state tuition discounts. But those rates were set 150 to 250 percent higher than what in-state students paid.
That has led to enrollment declines at state-owned schools. System-wide, enrollment is down 6 percent since 2010. In 2013-14, only West Chester and Bloomsburg universities experienced enrollment gains.
Edinboro University, near Erie, has experienced the sharpest decline. Since 2010, its enrollment has fallen 18 percent, in part, because schools in neighboring Ohio have offered tuition discounts to Pennsylvania residents that, in some cases, made it cheaper for them to attend college in Ohio than in Pennsylvania.
To combat that, Edinboro plans to institute a two-year tuition pilot program in which it charge out-of-state students just 5 percent more than what in-state students pay.
The policy change also will allow California University of Pennsylvania to reduce tuition rates by 10 percent for active military personnel taking classes online and for West Chester University students taking classes at its Philadelphia location.
Millersville University began discounting tuition this year for out-of-state students who are considered high achievers and/or who plan to major in STEM classes science, technology, engineering or math. Millersville also is discounting tuition for transfer students.
Because Pennsylvania taxpayers subsidize the cost of higher education, state lawmakers have been reluctant to discount tuition for out-of-state students.
But Edinboro officials note that seats in classrooms are going unfilled and that attracting out-of-state students will not cost the state any additional money and will, in fact, increase revenue. Furthermore, it brings greater diversity to college campuses.
Tuition flexibility dovetails with another significant issue: The number of college-age students is dropping.
According to a study by the Western Institute Commission for Higher Education, high school graduating class sizes have been falling since 2008. The decline is especially pronounced in the Northeast, where the number of high school students is expected to fall by about 1 percent per year through 2021-22.
Therefore, state universities are attempting to get ahead of the curve by reaching out to students who live beyond state borders.
State university presidents have argued for years that they need greater flexibility in setting tuition and scheduling.
Giving each school greater control over rates that fit its needs rather than having a one-size-fits-all policy makes sense.
It places the accountability squarely on each school's administration, which is precisely where it belongs.
(Lancaster) Intelligencer Journal