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Economists: Restructuring Plan "Disastrous" for PA Universities

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Economists say consolidations and cuts at Pennsylvania state universities would have a disproportionate impact on women. (Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock)
Economists say consolidations and cuts at Pennsylvania state universities would have a disproportionate impact on women. (Rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock)
 By Andrea Sears - Producer, Contact
April 30, 2021

HARRISBURG, Pa. - A new report says the proposed consolidation of Pennsylvania's 14 public universities would mean significant job losses and economic decline in surrounding communities.

On Wednesday, the Board of Governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education - or PASSHE - voted to advance a plan to consolidate six campuses into two larger institutions, and to reduce faculty and staff levels systemwide.

If approved, the plan would eliminate more than 1,500 jobs in 2023.

Report co-author Michael Ash - chair of the Economics Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst - said that would cause further job losses in communities where the universities are major employers, costing the surrounding counties millions in lost revenue as well as local and state tax revenue.

"This will rank in the top 1% of layoffs in Pennsylvania since 2011," said Ash. "This is a very large economic impact."

PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein says enrollment has dropped 21% in the past decade and without consolidation, the system could face dissolution or have to close campuses.

But Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, blamed decades of declining state spending for higher education for the enrollment drop. He said state funding for PASSHE has fallen to just 38% of the level it was in 1983 and '84.

"Those universities," said Stier, "which were once the engines of social mobility in Pennsylvania, have become much less effective at that task as tuition has gone up, making PASSHE schools less accessible to working people."

He said the price of a four-year education as a percent of the median income in Pennsylvania is now tied with Alabama as the second least affordable in the country.

Ash pointed out most of the untenured faculty at the universities - those most likely to be cut - and almost 60% of students enrolled in the system, are women.

"Some of the campuses have female enrolment as high as 70%," said Ash. "So, as these cuts arrive, there'll be a disproportionate impact on the female enrollment of the PASSHE system."

The vote in the Board of Governors launched a 60 day public comment period on the proposal. A final vote is scheduled for July.

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