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Did Penn State’s expansion of its branch campuses lead to the destruction of the state universities?

… PSU says no, some experts say yes

The truth is that for students looking for the best bargain for a college education in Pennsylvania, the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education provide that for them.

However, the system is dying with six of the 14 universities planning mergers, and that has occurred for many reasons.


First, this is a nationwide problem that will exacerbate in 2025 when the fertility debacle that resulted from George W. Bush’s Great Republican Recession of 2008 takes effect.


Second, however, is that the state no longer has sufficient numbers of young people for the number of institutions that are there.


However, the expansion of Penn State in the 1990s is being blamed for the loss of students at the state schools.


What occurred and has it had a deleterious effect on the state institutions — and on the state in general?


The facts

Penn State decided in the late 1990s to allow its branch campuses to offer bachelor’s degrees instead of remaining two-year institutions. That is the root of this argument,


Penn State operates its flagship University Park campus and 23 others across Pennsylvania, many of which are near one of the 14 state universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

“They saw a market they could capture and it solidified their political dominance in the state,” said Joni E. Finney, a recently retired director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “They didn’t care about PASSHE, nor about serving the commonwealth. A partnership with PASSHE would have been the best thing in some kind of way.”


Susan Snyder, “Penn State expanded its branch campuses decades ago. Now, some say that’s one reason state universities are struggling,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 2021


I attended the Altoona Campus in the 1960s and then matriculated at the main campus, a process that most PSU students had to go through at the time: attending a branch campus first.


Now, it is a four-year institution.


Or has it been greedy politicians?


However, a columnist has said that another reason that the state universities are struggling are because of greedy politicians — of one party.


Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer points to the promise that the schools injected into the post-WWII era in the state,


You can’t destroy the American Dream without building it up first. At the dawn of the 1960s, amid a Camelot of post-World War II can-do optimism, Pennsylvania injected academic steroids into old teachers’ colleges in out-of-the-way places like Kutztown or splayed boxy, utilitarian dorms across Appalachian foothills to create an engine meant to propel the Keystone State’s young people into a bold new economy.


These 14 institutions — from West Chester University and the historically Black Cheyney University on the western edge of Philadelphia’s suburbs to Edinboro University some five hours northwest — would become the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE. With low tuition underwritten by taxpayers — who’d reap the benefits of an educated workforce — Pennsylvania would teach the daughters and sons of coal miners, factory workers and farmers to become guidance counselors, or accountants, or business executives.


What could be more simple — or politically popular — than the mission statement of Kutztown University when it upgraded in 1960 from the Keystone State Normal School, to become “a center for learning for the best possible education of the youth of Pennsylvania...” It all seemed impossible to screw up …


Will Bunch, By wrecking state universities, GOP crushes American

Dream for its own communities,” Inquirer, May 6, 2021

Yet, Bunch says, Republican politicians did so.

I will explore this in a later post.


First, back to Penn State.


PSU denies its culpability


However, while they are being cast as the villains in this saga, Penn State continues to defend its move to expand the branch campuses,


Penn State officials continue to defend the move. Provost Nicholas P. Jones said Penn State has added bachelor’s programs to its Commonwealth campuses in areas where there was student demand and labor needs, most recently in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, where there is little program overlap with PASSHE schools.


“We are not looking to compete with them,” Jones said. “We are looking to complement them and make sure higher-education needs in the commonwealth are met.”


Susan Snyder, Inquirer, August 8, 2021


That leads to a realization that the state simply has too many colleges for the market to bear.


That continues to be part of the problem,


Pennsylvania has one of the largest numbers of public and private four-year colleges in the nation. It’s not unique in having both a flagship land-grant university and a separate state system. But Finney points out that Pennsylvania is unusual because its land-grant university created other four-year campuses. Something similar happened in Washington, she said.


“It really hurt the public regionals and it created the same kind of expensive competition,” she said.


Susan Snyder, Inquirer, August 8, 2021


The reality is that the problem is that we may never know exactly what impact Penn State had, but there are many factors involved.


What is still true is that the state university system still provides a great bargain in education, and for those students who want to start life with a little student debt as possible, that is a great asset to the communities in the state.



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