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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education may offer as many as 1,000 employees an early retirement incentive as the system struggles to rein in costs amid declining enrollment trends, the PASSHE chancellor told lawmakers Thursday.

Chancellor Dan Greenstein said that the system is looking to control costs in part because it can’t afford to continue increasing tuition rate.

“We need to get our tuition under control. Across-the-board tuition increases are pricing our students out of affordable access to a university education,” he said.

Student 
enrollment across the 14-university State System 
has declined by almost 18 percent since 
fall 2010. There were 98,094 students enrolled in the system at the beginning of this academic year, compared to 119,513 in 2010.

Over that period, the number of employees working for the system has dropped about 12.5 percent — as the total number of workers declined from 14,970 to 13,094. Of that, the number of faculty members declined from 7,303 to 6,380, about a 12.6 percent drop.

The average cost to attend a PASSHE school is now $21,682 a year. The state system includes Edinboro, Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities.

Word of the retirement incentive came out as Greenstein made the case to Senate appropriations committee members that the system should get more funding than the amount proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf in his budget address two weeks ago.

Wolf’s proposal would boost funding for the state system by $7 million in 2019-2020. Greenstein said the system would like to get an extra $30.7 million on top of what Wolf suggested, bringing the system’s state funding in the coming year to $505.8 million.

Republican state Sen. Scott Martin of Lancaster asked Greenstein to explain what steps the system is taking to “right-size” its employee count.

“That’s an important component when you’re talking about fixing your balance sheet,” Martin said. “That’s a huge obstacle, you face.”

Greenstein said that system officials have begun talking to union groups about the possibility of offering the retirement incentives as one avenue for trying to trim payroll costs.

“We’ve not done everything we can to align our costs with our revenue,” he said.

But Greenstein said there are “several hundred” and perhaps as many as 1,000 university employees who’ve worked long enough to take advantage of a retirement incentive if the system offers one.

It’s not clear how quickly any such incentive would be offered and it's not clear how quickly the unions would agree to it, Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, said.

“These kinds of discussion can go quickly or can take a long time,” he said.

Martin’s not the only lawmaker concerned about how effectively the state system controls costs as it asks for more money from the Legislature, said state Rep. Brad Roae, a member of the PASSHE board of trustees.

He said a one-year contract extension given to the faculty union last year carried a $19 million price tag, more than the increase provided to the state system in the 2018-19 budget.

“So, their financial situation got worse,” because of that deal, Roae said.

Greenstein, who was just named chancellor in the fall, said that the budget increase is necessary to give the system momentum as it prepares to roll out a system redesign in 2020.

That redesign will do things like increase attention on helping students stay in school, ensure that the universities are providing education to meet the region’s workforce needs and do more to attract adults who had previously started college but didn’t graduate, Greenstein said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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