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Students and parents may require a road map to navigate Pennsylvania’s diverse and often complex higher education landscape.

When high school seniors begin searching for the best school to fit their higher education goals, they may need a road map, tour guide and interpreter to help them sort through Pennsylvania’s higher education universe.

For sure there are seemingly endless choices — public, private, large, small, urban and rural.

The Keystone State boasts nearly 200 public and private institutions of higher learning. The similarity with the higher education landscape in other states seems to end with those characteristics however, as even education leaders in the state confess it can be confusing.

“I once had to explain it to a delegation from Mongolia,” says Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, who also served in the state legislature for 24 years. “Even when you speak the same language, it’s hard to explain.”

Penn State University, for example, is not a state university nor is it legally affiliated with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the unified network of 14 state-owned universities fully funded and run by the state. The University of Pennsylvania is believed to be the only private school in the nation to carry the flag of “the university,” a reference commonly held by a state’s flagship public university.

To add to the confusion, for example, California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania — both members of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — are located in California, Pa., and Indiana, Pa., respectively.The state’s 14 community colleges and their network of campuses are an independent confederation of schools with minimal state coordination or oversight. The Pennsylvania Commission on Community Colleges is a nonprofit association of college presidents.Each president is free to lobby the legislature for funds for their respective school.

To boot, Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University each have special status as “staterelated” schools. Penn State has had the status since its early years in the mid-1800s, and the other three acquired it in the 1960s as part of a state bailout of their financial woes. As state-related, they can make their own cases for state money and get an allocation each year — about 10 percent of their total budgets — while escaping the coordination and governance found in the State System of Higher Education.Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are “stateaided” schools, a classification that provides them state assistance for specific programs, such as Upenn’s veterinary medicine program, the only one in the state.

A Loaded Landscape

Pennsylvania’s higher education landscape is a mix of “political compromise, part institutional history and heritage,” says Dr. John G. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the State System of Higher Education.”If people aren’t tracking, it can be confusing for them.”

Higher education in Pennsylvania is deeply rooted in private school education, still a strong force in the state. Long before the state started its own network of four-year schools, Penn State, for example, was designated in the 1860s as the state’s “land grant” institution. Penn State holds that position today, operating an extensive agricultural research and cooperative extension program that rakes in millions each year in federal funds.

It was not until the early 1980s that the state-owned group of four-year colleges was split from the state Department of Education and set up as the State System of Higher Education. Even then, the schools the state helped bail out in the 1960s (Temple, Pittsburgh, Lincoln) and Penn State were excluded from this overhaul, the political winds in the state preferring it.

The practical fragmentation plays out in different ways, depending on where you are around the table, says Diane Bosak, executive director of the community colleges association, echoing the sentiments of others.

On the one hand, the multitude of choices means “a high school student in Pennsylvania has no reason to leave,” says Dr. William “Bill” Rudd, president of Shippensburg University and chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Universities — an organization of presidents of public and private institutions. “We like to call it collaborative competition.”

For students, the lack of a more simple, unified system like that found in New York and Maryland makes it tougher for community college students to navigate through college if they are seeking a four-year degree. In Pennsylvania, articulation agreements covering transfers are done on a school-by-school basis. It has been a constant complaint to lawmakers over the years, say some Pennsylvania higher education experts.

Only this fall did the state move to expand articulation agreements beyond the community college level. It now allows students to transfer up to 60 credits earned at a state community college to one of the state system schools. The details of those agreements must still be hammered out over the next year. Meanwhile, absent sharp counselors, many students will continue to find they have spent time and money taking courses that will not be accepted when they attempt to transfer to one of the state’s public fouryear schools.

State funding for various groups of colleges can be a tricky game too, depending on your “sector,” as Bosak calls them. Funding for the 14 state universities, proposed by the chancellor of the State System of Higher Education, is part of the state’s omnibus budget passed earlier this year. Annual allocations for the state-related schools are separate and, this year, are being held up pending the outcome of a fight in the state House of Representatives over whether to expand casino gambling to include table games.

“It’s fair to say there’s confusion, as they confuse us with Penn State a lot,” says Cavanaugh. “Right now, there’s pretty good clarity since we have our budget and they don’t.”

Access Denied

Public access to school information on budget, planning, salaries and expenditures can also be contentious. It’s nearly impossible to find a comprehensive central information source for higher education in the state, and individual institutions are not excited about public access or transparency, citing federal FERPA laws or claiming exemption from the state’s public records laws.

In the 1970s, when the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) sued Pennsylvania and a host of Southern states to dismantle their dual systems of higher education (one for Whites, one for Blacks), “it was very difficult to get anything out of them because the system was so disconnected,” recalls Jean Fairfax, then-director of legal and community affairs for the LDF.

More recently, it took action by the state Legislature to require the state-related schools to comply with public requests for disclosures of salaries and other information. Previously, the schools claimed they were private and thus exempt from the state law.

“We are private and we are public,” says Dr. Ivory Nelson, president of historically Black Lincoln, one of the four state-related schools. “What we try to do is use the right (designation) at the right moment. No other state is like this one.”

“We’re pretty odd,” says Bosak of the community college commission.Still, she says there is no desire among the state-controlled community colleges to join a unitary system with the State System of Higher Education. The local colleges see their roles as “unique” and “not the same” as that of four-year schools. Others say consolidating the community colleges and four-year schools could require a merger of union ranks, with the stronger one at the four-year schools setting the tone for future relations.

“This complicated system is one of our greatest assets,” Cowell says jokingly, adding that simplification of the system is not likely.

“It is not to be sorted out. The issue is not going to be changed.

People tinker around the edges, but it’s not going to get any easier.”

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