States Damage Higher Education, Create Punishing Student Debt

April 6, 2016
By: Neil Cosgrove

 The popularity among young people of Bernie Sanders’ proposals to fund tuition-free college education and student loan forgiveness is easy to understand, when we consider how state governments have abandoned the funding of public higher education in recent decades.

 The unrelenting drone emitted by “no new taxes” politicians, mostly Republicans, appears to emerge from an alternative reality that our most recent generation of college graduates and students do not share. That unfortunate cohort finds itself between the rock of needing a diploma for economic viability and the hard place of accumulating crushing debts to pay the ever-increasing tuition the diploma requires. (See Nijah Glenn’s article “Under Pressure” in the March NewPeople.)

 Pennsylvania represents the worst consequences of states’ retreat from funding public higher education. In 1983, state funding accounted for 63% of the operating budgets of the 14 state-owned universities that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Currently, state funding covers about 25% of those budgets. State appropriations now contribute seven percent to the state-related University of Pittsburgh’s operating budget, and six percent to Penn State’s.

 As a consequence, total costs for PASSHE students increased nearly 28% between 2007 and 2014, according to the Keystone Research Center, while University of Pittsburgh’s and Penn State’s tuitions are among the highest for the nation’s public universities; in-state tuition at those schools was nearly a third of the nation’s median household income of $53.657 in 2014. Not surprisingly, the average debt of our state’s college graduates ($33,264) is well above the national average. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, Pennsylvania ranks third among all states in average student loan debt.

 Our college graduates are commonly forced to take jobs that are temporary in nature and without much opportunity for advancement, at pay levels that do not provide financial independence, given the graduates’ debt burdens. Careers that once drove a young person’s ambitions are indefinitely postponed, as are life-fulfilling events such as marriage and creating a family.

 Two states extremely similar in terms of population (Illinois has around 10,000 more people than Pennsylvania, according to 2013 census estimates) have experienced long-running budget battles that adversely affect the already inadequate funding of public higher education. Illinois’ situation remains the most catastrophic of the two, as no money has been allocated to the state universities since June 2015.

 While Pennsylvania’s dispute is an argument between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature over raising taxes to adequately fund the budget, Illinois’ Republican Governor Bruce Rauner is refusing to accept a $36 billion dollar budget unless the Democratic legislature agrees to his recommended changes in public employees’ collective bargaining rights and worker compensation.

 The lack of funding has been particularly hard on Illinois’ smaller regional universities. In February the historically black Chicago State University sent layoff notices to every one of the school’s faculty, staff and administrators, declared a state of financial emergency, and cancelled spring break in order to save money by moving up the end of the Spring term. Eastern Illinois laid off nearly 200 employees and forced faculty and staff to take around a month’s worth of furlough days by the end of June. Western Illinois is considering cutting programs and laying off more than two dozen non-tenured faculty.

 In Pennsylvania, following Governor’s Wolf’s late March decision not to veto the most recent Republican budget iteration, the PASSHE schools will plod along with a slight 5% increase over funding that was slashed by 18% in 2011. The state-related schools like Pitt received  a similar increase from last year’s meager allocation, although Democrats, some Republicans, and independent observers admit the state has inadequate revenues to pay for the budget appropriations. Tuition increases are close to guaranteed for the 2016-2017 academic year.

 Given public higher education’s role in spurring economic growth, in backing the personal futures of millions of citizens, and in creating an informed electorate as well as potential civic leaders, the neglect of these institutions by state-level politicians goes beyond ideological disagreements and constitutes criminally ignoring citizens’ fundamental well-being. Contemporary college students and recent graduates have every right to be angry. Something has clearly got to give.

 Public higher education must be funded to the extent that it is available to potential students from all socio-economic backgrounds, without having to incur crippling amounts of debt; wages must rise for jobs not requiring a college education; and a guaranteed base income for all Americans (Richard Nixon’s 45-year-old negative income tax proposal) must be implemented.

 This generation of young adults appears to be demanding such measures, but simply backing one progressive-minded Presidential candidate won’t make them happen. The current state legislators and governors who create the budgets allocating funds for public higher education need to believe their jobs depend on positively responding to a new generation of voters—and for years to come.

Neil Cosgrove co-chairs the New People editorial collective and is a member of the Thomas Merton Center board.

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