State Legislators Avoid Responsibility for Higher Education

By Neil Cosgrove

Here’s the awful truth: a significant, at times decisive, set of Pennsylvania legislators don’t believe their state has an obligation to provide affordable higher education to its less affluent students. Given past statements by State House Speaker Mike Turzai, it’s not even clear those same legislators think they have an obligation to provide equal educational opportunities to students in K through 12.

Right now, Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 states in per-capita expenditures on public higher education.

In 2016 the state spent $4052 on each full-time-equivalent student, nearly three thousand less than the national average of $6,966. Student loan obligations burdening our graduates are among the highest in the land. State budget allocations cover about 21% of the operating budgets of the 14 state-owned universities, compared to 63% when the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (SSHE) was created in 1983, while the percentage for “state-related” universities like Pitt and Penn State is in the mid-single digits.

Nevertheless, these same legislators seem determined to cut their support still further, and can come up with any number of reasons for doing so. The most recent example was the commissioning of a Rand Corporation study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, intended to address a perceived “crisis” confronting the State System.

Part of this alleged crisis is a drop-off in student enrollments from a peak of nearly 120,000 students in 2010, a peak that corresponded with a peak in state high school graduates, to 102,000 students at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, which also corresponds with steady declines in high school graduates since 2010. Somehow there wasn’t the same sense of crisis when enrollments were only around 104,000 in 2004, or under 100,000 in 1991.

More worrisome are quite sharp declines at a handful of universities—Cheyney, Mansfield, Clarion and Edinboro—but neither the legislators nor the Rand study take much note that these schools are in some of the poorest areas in the state, with declining populations. Branch campuses of the state-related universities in those same regions have also seen their enrollments drop.

Nor do the legislators or Rand bother to look for links connecting the regions’ low incomes, steadily rising tuition rates, and declining enrollment at those universities. Because of paltry state budget allocations, tuition at the state system schools is now more than double what it was less than 20 years ago–$7,492 for 2017-18; $3,468 in 1998-99. This increase far outstrips the US inflation rate of 50% over the same period. And the crisis is not one of exploding costs. Despite modest increases the past few years the most recent budget allocation for SSHE is still nearly $25 million less than the one for 2008-09.

Many legislators, it appears, would like to cut the allocation further, and commissioned Rand to provide them with reasons to do so. “Rand makes recommendations,” comments Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty (APSCUF), “but from where does it derive these recommendations? There are no comparisons to what other states may have done. There is no sourcing to any research.” And there are no recommendations that the state continue to make modest increases in SSHE’s allocation, or the more substantial increases that are truly needed.

Instead, Rand’s recommendations range from the ineffectual to the ludicrous. The former is represented by a suggestion that System universities be freed from state-mandated procurement and construction rules, even though such so-called “efficiencies” have already been part of the schools’ belt-tightening for years, in the face of chronically inadequate state support. The ludicrous comes in the form of recommendations that System schools either become state-related universities themselves, like Pitt and Penn State, or become branch campuses of the already existing state-related schools.

It’s hard to see just how such steps would strengthen any of the universities under discussion. No evidence exists indicating the state-related universities are eager to take over the System’s institutions. There is evidence that the System’s cost for instructing each of its students is less than the comparable cost incurred by the state-related schools.

The most likely outcome of all Pennsylvania’s publicly supported universities becoming state-related would be much higher tuition for System students. Pitt’s 2017-18 undergraduate tuition for in-state students is $18,130. The chair of the State Senate’s Education Committee, John Eichelberger Jr., says the state can’t “just keep throwing money at things,” but the state legislature has been throwing money at the State System as if nickels were manhole covers. State Senator David Argall adds that “the status quo regarding our State System universities is unacceptable.” So, change the status quo, Senator, by putting needed public money back into the state’s public universities.

Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.

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