Pa. Act could prevent universities like UArts from suddenly closing

HARRISBURG — After the sudden closure of the University of the Arts, state lawmakers are trying to prevent the sudden closure of any other schools in Pennsylvania.

A group of Democratic lawmakers in the House, led by Republican Ben Waxman (D., Philadelphia) and Republican Bob Merski (D., Erie), wants to create recent accountability and transparency measures for higher education institutions.

Each college or university would be obliged, among other things, to: to notify the state of impending closure or consolidation, submit annual enrollment and financial data, and create a repository of transcripts for closing universities, among other things, according to a proposal that has not yet been formally adopted introduced in the State House. Schools would have to meet these requirements to receive state funding, which most private universities, such as the University of the Arts, receive even though they are not public.

This proposal does not solve the problems currently facing UArts students and alumni, but we hope it is a proactive step to prevent such closures in the future, lawmakers said in a joint interview Wednesday. Lawmakers said they might have been able to support UArts if they had learned about the institution’s financial troubles earlier.

“We will continue to see corporate mergers and closures, and we need to make sure we stay ahead of them,” said Rep. Morgan Cephas (R-Philadelphia), who chairs the Philadelphia delegation to Harrisburg, noting the merger of the University of Science and Technology with St. Patrick’s University. Joseph’s as one of several private college consolidations or closures in the Philadelphia region over the past few years.

Pennsylvania has its own higher education system, which includes 10 four-year universities and 15 community colleges. It also has four schools affiliated with the state, all of which receive state funds in exchange for offering tuition discounts to in-state students. There are also over 100 private universities throughout the state.

These private schools still receive some state funding. For example, in-state students who attend private schools are eligible for state-funded grants, and the state often lends or gives schools funds for immense capital projects or helps them obtain federal funds.

Waxman, whose Center City district includes the University of the Arts, said he has personally sent letters asking state regulators to approve funding for some of the school’s capital projects.

“If the state is expected to provide this type of funding, information is needed about whether the university is financially viable and whether it is managing these resources appropriately,” Waxman said. “There just has to be accountability.”

On Monday in the morning, Waxman will host the first of what he said will be a series of public hearings on the closure of UArts at the William Way LGBT Community Center. Students and faculty can talk about how the university closure has impacted their lives. UArts administrators have been invited to speak, but are not expected to attend.

Merski, the second author of the bill, said he was already working on similar provisions after announcing the closure of the bill Notre Dame College in Ohio, where some of his constituents attended.

Rep. Erie then began working with Waxman, Cephas, and House Appropriations Chairman Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) to determine what action they could take against UArts for disrupting the lives of so many students and faculty.

“I was a first-generation college student. I can’t imagine paying a $500 down payment as a freshman and then the school announces it’s closing and the state doesn’t have a mechanism to help you,” Merski said. “It helps us structurally as a Commonwealth to mitigate some of these sudden closures so that they don’t happen so suddenly, so there is a process in place to make sure students are taken care of.”

“We must be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we want universities and private institutions to know: You are receiving our resources to help educate our students,” Harris said. “We want to make sure that if we need to, if there are problems, we know what’s going on.”

Harris added that he does not want the state to take over private companies rather, universities work to “safeguard our investments.”

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