Last week, two Southeastern Pennsylvania legislators - Sens. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) and Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) - said they were preparing legislation that would allow West Chester and the other large universities in the system to gain greater autonomy or go at it alone.
The 112,300-student system is facing perhaps the greatest challenge in its 30-plus-year history. Enrollment has declined 6 percent since 2010, with drops of more than 20 percent at some schools, and state funding has remained flat the last two years following an 18 percent cut.
"The money to our schools has dropped so much, I might as well become a state-related," said Tomlinson, a 1970 graduate of West Chester who serves on its board of trustees. "I'm willing to take less state money for more flexibility in running my own institution."
West Chester recently became the system's largest school, with 15,845 students, surpassing Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Bloomsburg and West Chester were the only two colleges to show enrollment increases this year. (Other system schools are California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock.)
Proponents of the legislation worry that West Chester and the other healthy schools are having to shore up at their expense those that are struggling. If West Chester were to withdraw, it could add programs or change tuition without system approval or having to pay system fees.
Tomlinson said the legislation, which would allow universities with more than 7,000 students - nine of the 14 - to break away, would be unveiled at a news conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday. The schools breaking away would have to prove they have the financial means to buy their way out of the system over a period of years by acquiring assets under the state's domain.
Backers of the legislation say the state system has been too slow to respond to changing academic needs and bleeding enrollment.
"They're going to have to give some flexibility to individual schools, and they are going to have to rightsize and repurpose some schools," Tomlinson said. "You can't run schools that have 3,000 students like they have 6,000."
Brogan said he worries that if the larger schools leave the system, those remaining could be harmed.
The system saves money on shared services in payroll and other areas. If some withdraw, savings would lessen, Brogan said. And the schools that do withdraw would find going it alone can be a problem.
"Someone who thinks you can make the jump to a quasi-private based on sheer size, I don't think understands the business model that is required to operate in that arena," Brogan said.
The four state-related schools, Temple, Penn State, Lincoln, and Pittsburgh, have larger endowments and have established fund-raising efforts, and a distinct brand that would not be easily or quickly replicated, Brogan added.
Responding to Brogan's warnings, Tomlinson said: "I'm trying to save the system."
The state system's financial outlook is daunting. It projects a $61 million budget deficit for next year, which it has proposed to close with a 4 percent increase in state funding, a one-time $18 million payment from the state, and a 3 percent tuition increase. The governor, however, has proposed another funding freeze.
Without those state funds, larger tuition hikes loom. At one time, the state covered 67 percent of the system's costs. Now, it's just 27 percent, or $412 million - the same amount the system got in 1997-98.
There are better ways to deal with concerns, Brogan said. The system, for example, is allowing universities to submit proposals to alter tuition: Edinboro got approval to lower out-of-state tuition so it could draw more students from neighboring Ohio, and Clarion can charge more for its nursing program.
The system also will look at closer collaboration with other colleges across the state, he said.