Time to ditch an obsolete policy
Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, so state politicians have been reluctant to allow those institutions to reduce tuition for out-of-state students.
Traditionally, tuition at those institutions has been 150 percent to 250 percent higher for out-of-state students than for state residents. Locally, Mansfield University's annual tuition fees are 150 percent higher for out-of-state students.
But economics and demographics have rendered that policy obsolete. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors is on the mark in approving a flexible tuition policy meant to attract, rather than discourage out-of-state students.
Many factors have coalesced to make the decision the best one for the system and the taxpayers who support it.
There are fewer college-aged students in Pennsylvania and neighboring states than in the recent past, which has increased competition for students. According to the Census Bureau, nationwide college enrollment dropped by 500,000 students in 2012, and by a further 2 percent for the 2013 spring semester. In the Northeast, meanwhile, high school graduating classes are projected to decline in size by 1 percent per year through the 2021-2022 school year.
And most of the decline has occurred among colleges that are not considered elite, including those in the state system. Enrollment at top-tier colleges remains strong, even though they generally are far more expensive.
Another factor is that older students who opted for further education when they couldn't get jobs during the Great Recession and its aftermath, have begun to find their way into the work force.
Economic decisions in neighboring states reflect the changes. A student population decline of 18 percent at state-owned Edinboro University, near Erie, is due in part to Ohio's decision to discount or eliminate out-of-state tuition differentials at its state-owned universities.
Under the changed policy, state-owned schools will have greater flexibility to set tuition, within state-mandated parameters. Edinboro, for example, will set out-of-state tuition just 5 percent higher than in-state tuition. Doing so will make Edinboro more competitive with its regional counterparts. And lower out-of-state tuition there and elsewhere in the system doesn't cost taxpayers any more, while bringing in more revenue.
The state institutions are part of one system, but each has a unique marketing situation based on its location. Others want to offer discounts for out-of-state students who elect certain majors. It makes good sense to give them greater ability to seek out-of-state students.