- The board that oversees a system of 14 public colleges in Pennsylvania has agreed to allow them to determine their own tuition plans, though they must set them for two years at a time, settle on final figures earlier in the year and receive board approval.
- The policy will allow the universities, which enroll roughly 100,000 students, to consider "regional economic differences," program costs and their students' ability to pay for tuition, according to a news release.
- The change is part of a multiyear redesign of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (Passhe) that aims to transform it into a "sharing system" in which "[t]he universities will work more closely together, expanding educational opportunities for students while ensuring the programs they offer align even more closely with workforce needs," Passhe Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said in the announcement.
The flexibility to set tuition is part of the three-phase redesign of Passhe, which has seen declining enrollment for the eighth-straight year, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Some colleges in the state have been harder hit than others; enrollment at Mansfield University has dropped by more than 50% since 2010.
The new "sharing system" will help Passhe shore up its finances by combining some administrative functions and offering course-sharing across institutions, including online, in an attempt to cut down on operating costs. The new tuition policy will allow the universities to craft budgets over multiple years and give students more predictability around college costs, said Cynthia Shapira, Passhe's board chair, in a statement.
Several Passhe colleges were experimenting with per-credit tuition pricing prior to the announcement, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Millersville University was the earliest, making the switch in the 2014-15 academic year. Although the new strategy has raised its annual tuition revenue by $5 million, some board members expressed concerns that it was having a negative effect on low-income and minority students.
Passhe leaders have applauded the changes. "The beauty of the policy is that each institution with its own distinctive nature, its own culture, its own region, can look at its data, its own student body, and be able to come up with a plan that is the best fit for them," Shippensburg University President Laurie Carter told The Inquirer.
Policies on tuition-setting have long been debated. Concerns over rising tuition prices have prompted some lawmakers to seek control over the process, though the majority of states give that authority to "single- or multi-institutional boards," according to the Education Commission of the States.
The Commission points to changes in Louisiana's tuition-setting policies as one of the most notable in recent years. Boards took over control from lawmakers to set tuition rates for two- and four-year schools, though there are caps on tuition hikes.
Who controls tuition was the subject of a ballot initiative in Florida in November, and earlier this year in North Dakota, state legislators moved to take control of tuition levels from a state panel because, proponents said, both state funding and tuition were rising simultaneously.
However, a 2017 report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found many states lack a clear strategy for tuition-setting and often don't address critical issues about affordability.
And allowing for more flexibility doesn't always solve the problems it intends to. In 2003, the Texas legislature moved from a uniform tuition-setting policy to let institutions set their rates. A 2016 study of the effects of that change found wider price variation and significant price increases for more selective institutions in the system and among undergraduate programs with higher earning potential. The institutions did add aid and other incentives to help low-income students manage those costs.