As the plans for the consolidation of six universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) continue, student and teacher organizations such as the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), PASSHE Defenders and the People’s Congress of PASSHE feel their concerns regarding it are being largely ignored. The recent consolidation of the three western universities under the name Pennsylvania Western University (PennWest) saw very little, if any, student or faculty input. In the following interview, Nick Marcil, a Higher Education Policy and Student Affairs Master’s student at West Chester University and co-founder PASSHE Defenders, identifies key problems with the plan for consolidation and the PASSHE system’s funding as a whole.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
As a student journalist trying to cover consolidation, I have found that a lot of students don’t really know that consolidation is going on. Why do you think that is?
Marcil: In a way, I think that is exactly the point, right? The Chancellor and the board of governors— the reason why the public comment hearings and the whole plan was done when it was done, is because they don’t care for student input. They don’t. Because they had their minds made up, right? That is why everything was basically over the summer when, during a pandemic year, people are not on campus, they are not engaged with faculty, staff, and even each other in the same ways to have those outlets of information channels. It’s extremely hard to get anything across to people. It’s just saddening… I recently tweeted from the PASSHE Defender about how from roughly that time… over 20 years just tuition (adjusted for inflation) has increased over $1,000. That doesn’t sound like that much but, especially when you look at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities… Pennsylvania is near the top in terms of its decrease on state spending per student in higher education. The real sort of jarring information, at least in my opinion, is this: when you think from a social justice, equity standpoint of the average net price at a public four-year university, so being a PASSHE school… it is going to take a third of their [parents’] income to send their kids to school. If you look at the difference between a white family versus a Black family or a Hispanic family, that [the higher percentage of income they have to pay to send their kid to school] is drastic and that is extremely depressing, and in my opinion, shows the need for […] us be tuition-free and so on. Because when you do this approach, if you have whatever tuition costs, and we’re going to give little bits of financial aid — which state schools don’t typically do that much in financial aid — it is so out of reach for a lot of students to either attend or just ends them with massive debt.
How do you think the consolidation will affect students applying to schools? I’m not sure that I would look at a school that has been consolidated and want to go there.
Marcil: That is one of the things that a lot of folks have said that this consolidation is going to lead to a depressing outcome to those six institutions that are slated and also, specifically, the four that are going to be branch campuses that they are now going to have less autonomy in terms of fighting for the programs that they have… Now, basically, all of the power or authority is vested in the main campus. If the legislature continues to starve things more, or even just keep things as is, then sooner or later they’re probably going to argue, “why do we even have this branch campus when they can just go to the main campus?” and just eliminate the school. That’s something that I fear, especially for a lot of these rural communities… A lot of these were founded as teacher colleges, like West Chester, and [were] specifically meant to prep future educators to go into those local communities. Those colleges and universities are what helps support and hold the towns and boroughs together… But the thing is, no one politically is going to outright go to close these institutions. But what you have heard is that there are some who have said we need to halt the system. Basically, that the universities should fend for themselves. And that, I find, is extremely dangerous and even the Chancellor himself said it, and then walked back.
West Chester University just built The SECC and the fountain. Do you think there are implications in where the system has chosen to spend money?
Marcil: Yeah, and I’ll say, it’s the continued logic of how we fund these institutions, right? So it’s a public institution. A public institution means that truthfully it should be free to anyone in that way. Of course, [there are] tuition and fees, which definitely are barriers to some people. The way some people say we should try to tackle that is by making it free by funding the system in whatever way is to garner these donations and donations can be good. That is totally good and fine. The thing is, it’s not the public that gets to decide how that money is used. […] with the fountain, a donor could request they give money and it is for a specific cause. That is something that the campus doesn’t necessarily need when there are students who might be facing basic needs and security, or students that are struggling with tuition fees and housing costs and so on. When we have that it just creates this continued idea that we need to go out, get more donations, and then have this financial aid system to distribute out the funds rather than at least first having this free system. At least, in my mind, when I look at these systems I think a lot of the times they perform poorly because you try to have certain metrics which you are trying to say this is the student who needs it, et cetera. You can definitely find a lot of students who will need the funds but then a lot of the time there are students who are left out of that equation… I believe, just like K-12 institutions, a public institution means it is free. It is for anyone, for all. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do things to target specific populations who are disenfranchised through society in trying to fix a lot of those equity gaps.
What do you think are the next steps students can take?
Marcil: In my opinion, the lack of funding that we receive from the state, being a state-owned institution you would think we would actually be funded properly, but that is not at all the case… I know from the year 2000 to before the pandemic hit, we had the same amount of students PASSHE wide, but we had 31%less funding… There are definitely going to be issues when it comes to that. Especially when we try to do more and more and more in terms of programming.
Think for yourself, think within your communities and for other communities of what affects that you think that you’ve seen because of this lack of funding. Is it that you’re thinking to yourself, “why is it that my parents went to college, and they only had a couple thousand dollars that they had to worry about in terms of paying off anything? Why is it that my meal plan costs however much it costs? Or why is it that my swipes are only worth X amount of dollars?” — or however much it might cost to get some food, rather than just providing meals to students the way we do with our K-12 system. Just being self aware of those things [matters] because if you have an understanding of what the issues are in your own life, and connect it to those larger issues, that needs to happen. Then finding other students […] Maybe it’s within a club or organization. Maybe it is within your classes or maybe its with different student, on-campus jobs that you have where you feel like I think we deserve X, Y or Z. Like, why is it that our department or our organization has less money then it did? Is it because we don’t get this funding from the state? Then…take action in whatever way.
I’ve been looking recently at some of the interesting history at West Chester regarding activism and action on campus. There’s a series through the Educational Foundations and Policy Studies department that I’ve helped put on called “Activism and Action.” Looking at things throughout history can be a good place to think to yourself what did previous students do? For instance, did you know the Black Panthers came to campus and talked about their 10-point program? Did you know that students had a sit in about ballistic missiles?.. [Then] thinking to yourself, “is there action like that that I could take?” A lot of the time we think to ourselves— when it comes to taking action, we think of just voting but there is so much more than that. I think it is very important to consider how do you, as a student, have power and I think it comes from action with others… Collectively you have a lot more power than you might think you do.
Emma Hogan is a second-year English major. EH954390@wcupa.edu