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Penn State’s arrogance, greed in making branch campuses four-year schools could lead to their bankruptcy

I feel blessed today to have started by college education at PSU-Altoona

… they have priced themselves out of business

To date myself, I will give you an incredible number. When I started at Penn State in the late 1960s, the tuition was 150 dollar a quarter, 450 dollars a year.

Yes, I am that old, and it was certainly much more by the time that I graduated in 1971.

Still, I never applied for financial aid and paid for my education in two ways: An academic scholarship and Bethlehem Steel.

However, one of the other anomalies of Penn State at that time was that every student except those in a few selected majors like the five-year architecture course had to attend a branch campus in the first year.

After that, they were free to attend the main campus at University Park. Today, I am grateful for attending the Altoona Campus because it was a great transition from high school to college — and it had some great instructors many of whom had yet to earn their Ph.D.’s but were fabulous teachers.

More on that later, but 57 years after I started at the Altoona Campus for less than 500 bucks a year, Penn State finds itself in a major quandary that is of its own making, basically because of its greed.

First, it has priced itself out of the market for middle class students so that they have to pay about $132,000 for a four-year education, including room and board at University park.

That is about $44,000 more than the cost of attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Second, the action that PSU made in the late 1900s to make the branch campuses four-years instead of two has had a deleterious effect on schools like IUP and the other state universities.

Worse, however, the enrollment at these branch campuses is so low that Penn State may end up closing many of them, which will end up in court and will cost them tens of millions — or more — in the long run.

The history

How bad is the situation at Penn State? Here is the headline that is frightening: Penn State University asking for branch campus employees to voluntarily resign. What was not included in that sentence is this: Or they will lose their jobs as severe cutbacks are taking place.

Part of this has been caused by the Great Recession of 2008, after which the brith rates dropped because the Millennials and even some Gen-Xers could not afford to have children. Experts have been predicting that the worst of this would occur in 2025.

We are there.

Penn State is offering some perks like one year of salary and health care if they leave.

That is pitiful.

Here is what happened and how Penn State attempted — successful to destroy places like

Clarion and Shippensburg and Cal State and the other state schools.

In an analysis of how Penn State made the branch campuses four-year instead of two-year institutions, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted this tidbit from the 1990s,

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 is a blatant lie, their entire rationale was to bury the state schools.

They did, to an extent, but today, those schools are a great bargain compared to Penn State.

What is the result of this?

The Tribune-Review of Greensburg put together a thorough analysis the problems that this caused for Penn State — and on a lesser, the University of Pittsburgh.

Drops at PSU branch campuses

The data that the T-R compiled is shocking. Across the board, the branch campuses have dropped 30 percent in enrollment from 2010-22. In those 12 years, the enrollment went from about 34,000 to about 24,000.

This really hurt the Altoona campus, too, since it dropped almost 38 percent in that period, from 4,147 students to 2,577.

However, even more shocking is how small some of these campuses have become. They could hardly be self-sustaining. For instance, Fayette shrunk from 1,037 students to just 424 (59 percent0, Great Allegheny from 768 to 363 (53 percent), Shenango from 714 to 281 (61 percent).

How could Penn State have had the audacity to make those campuses four-year institutions?

Arrogance and greed.

Now, the worm has turned, and Penn State is mired with campuses that can hardly continue to exist. It has to close a tremendous budget deficit at the expense of the branch campuses,

Earlier this year it announced a new budget model and plans to cut almost $100 million in spending starting in July 2025, with about half of that amount coming from the Commonwealth Campuses. The goal is to achieve a balanced budget, beginning with fiscal year 2025-26.

Michael T. Nietzel, “To Reduce Deficit, Penn State Offers Buyouts To Employees At Branch Campuses,” Forbes magazine, May 9, 2024

By closing these branch campuses, they guarantee that this will be played out in the courts.

This looks just like it did in 1967 with the water and the buildings that were new then

Pitt also in trouble

I will deal with Pitt’s unique problems in another story. Here is that the Tribune-Review’s excellent analysis concluded,

Both universities insist their branches remain critical to ensuring college access across Pennsylvania and to the vitality of their communities.

Responding to the decade-long slump, the branches have added course offerings in rapidly growing areas such as nursing and the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Increasingly, they emphasize teaching skills most immediately sought by local employers.

“We’re constantly looking at what are the programs that we need that are both interesting to students and critical to employers,” said Penn State Provost Justin Schwartz.

Still, the downward enrollment trend has continued on branch campuses. From 2010 to fall 2022, the declines averaged 36% across Pitt’s four branch campuses and 30% across 18 of the 19 Penn State Commonwealth campuses that deliver mostly undergraduate, in-person instruction. One of the Penn State branches, Harrisburg, experienced an 8% increase.

Bill Schackner, “Pitt, Penn State branch campuses bleeding enrollment; decline expected to continue,” Tribune-Review, June 25, 2023

To be continued …

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