State universities take their classes to Phila.

York Williams teaches a class at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's little-known campus in the old Lit. Bros. building in Center City.
York Williams teaches a class at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's little-known campus in the old Lit. Bros. building in Center City. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2014

PHILADELPHIA When it's time for class, Gloria Maloney's commute could barely be more convenient.

The city behavioral health worker rides the elevator to the basement of the former Strawbridge & Clothier flagship, then walks next door to the old Lit Bros. department store, where she's studying for her master's in social work.

On the third floor of that building at 701 Market St., now the Mellon Independence Center, she attends one of Philadelphia's newest higher-ed venues: a state university smorgasbord of sorts.

Three state universities offer courses for undergrads and grad students - Cheyney, West Chester, and East Stroudsburg. A fourth university, Millersville, will have a presence in the fall, and state officials expect more schools to join the year-old experiment.

"I can see this site just having a lot of success due to the geographical location," said Maloney, of Overbrook Park, who is studying for her degree from West Chester. "You have access to the Broad Street Line, Suburban Station, [Regional Rail]. It's the hub of everything. I think this style of education is the wave of the future."

West Chester's social-work program proved so popular the university started a second group this spring. But not all programs at the center have had as much success. Since it officially opened in March 2013, only 200 students have enrolled.

"One of the hurdles has been letting people know we exist," said Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the 14-school Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

Brogan traveled to Philadelphia last week to tour the center and learn about the city's higher-education needs.

"It's a new day," he said, "and we have to be nimble as a system to accommodate the future."

Brogan's comments come as the system finds itself at odds with West Chester and some state lawmakers who want to help it and others exit the system. The Philadelphia center has become a thorn in that dispute.

Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) is a West Chester University trustee pushing legislation that would allow the university to go out on its own. West Chester, he said, had been exploring opening a site in partnership with Cheyney, which has offered classes in the city for more than a decade.

"The next thing I know," he said, "they open their site and branded it PASSHE. Who knows what PASSHE is?"

Kenn Marshall, a PASSHE spokesman, said the system's officials believed having one center for several schools would be more cost-effective. And Mayor Nutter's office had asked the system to provide more public higher-education options in the city.

Under the state rules, universities are not to duplicate programs, and Cheyney - a historically black college that has struggled - gets the first shot at all programs. Most students at the 10-classroom center are older, juggling full-time jobs and families. Many are returning to complete degrees.

"Ultimately, I came to a fork in the road concerning career interests, and that's what brought me back," said Justin Crump, 32, a junior enrolled in Cheyney's liberal studies program.

Crump, a Philadelphia Water Department worker, wants to be a lawyer.

Ashley Dawson, 30, a liberal studies senior from Aldan, Delaware County, started out on Cheyney's main campus in 2002 but left when she became pregnant. She earned an associate's degree at a community college.

"I came here for convenience, smaller class sizes, and a smaller campus," said Dawson, a single mother who works full time as an assistant child-care director. "It's more personal."

When she had to miss class for her daughter's recital, she said, classmates caught her up.

"I've been at other universities where you can't get that," Dawson said. "So the convenience gets you here, but the sense of family is what keeps you."

Students also cite flexibility in course schedules and cost as attractions. In addition to state tuition, which tends to be significantly lower than at private and state-related colleges, West Chester offers a 10 percent discount at the city site.

"At my age, I'm not trying to incur these huge debts that come with attaining an education," said Maloney, the behavioral health worker, who will graduate in May along with her daughter, who is attending West Chester's main campus.

All classes are offered in the late afternoon and evenings, though day classes will be added, said Christina M. Dennis, center director. Students can take a combination of on-site and online classes, she said.

"I have a 6-month-old baby and also take care of my 3-year-old niece," said Ciera Stovall, 23, who is working on her master's in special education through West Chester. "I need a place that's a hybrid where I can do most of my work on online."


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