New test for Pa. higher-ed system: an audit

Posted: June 12, 2014

Pennsylvania's financially strapped state system of higher education will face a new test: A comprehensive review by the state's auditor general.

In recent years, the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) has seen declining enrollment and stagnant state funding, as well as a bid by one its members, West Chester, to consider withdrawing from the system.

"College tuition and other costs are rising and we need to look at every possible option to keep from making college unaffordable to middle class families," Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a statement. "Our audit is going to look at everything from the process for setting annual tuition rates to the policies and procedures on how the state-owned universities handle sexual assaults on campus."

Students at state system schools pay about $17,000 annually on average in tuition, fees, and room and board.

The audit, which will cover from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2014, is expected to be completed in 2015. DePasquale's office said the review will be "the first modern day comprehensive performance audit" of the effectiveness and policies of the state system.

State system officials note, however, that the system is regularly examined by external, independent auditors and that it shares its annual financial statements with national credit-rating agencies.

"We look forward to working with the auditor general and his staff in all phases of this review and are confident it will reflect the overall high level of professionalism with which the State System operates," system spokesman Kenn Marshall said.

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 system projects a $61 million budget deficit for next year, which it has proposed to close with a 4 percent increase in state funding, a onetime $18 million payment from the state, and a 3 percent tuition increase. The governor, however, has proposed another funding freeze.

The system's universities are: Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester.

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