Can higher education in Pennsylvania be saved?

If allocation for PASSHE doesn't increase whatsoever, universities could be looking at a 7.5% tuition bump, which would be "horrific" for future enrollment trends in the state, according to one PASSHE university president.

Pennsylvania is facing a double-edged sword in funding its higher education system next year, so much so that Gov. Josh Shapiro proclaimed his state’s public higher education system “isn’t working.” Since then, he has commissioned his Acting Education Secretary Khalid Mumin to create a task force to develop a statewide reform plan for next year.

Despite recent efforts to raise state funding for higher education and consolidate public universities, its public university system and state-related institutions are desperate for more financing to curb Pennsylvania’s rapidly declining student enrollment and intimidating college costs.

Since fall 2017, enrollment at Pennsylvania’s four-year public institutions has declined by 12.4%, which is dramatically worse than the nation’s overall 3% decrease in that sector, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While the Northeast region has experienced a dramatic decline in enrollment across every sector in that same period, Pennsylvania’s decline still outpaced the region’s average, 12.3% compared to 11.3%.

Aside from the demographic changes affecting the entire country, Pennsylvania’s public college system is catching fewer students per year due to its burdensome college costs. State funding per student ranks second worst nationwide, averaging $6,100 compared to the national average of $10,200, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Among the American Association of Universities’ public institution members, Pennsylvania State University and Pittsburgh University claimed the top spots for the costliest colleges to attend.

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Two state systems, both in need

Allocating state funding for Pennsylvania’s public institutions is split among two different public college systems: the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the Commonwealth System of Higher Education. The latter comprises the state’s most revered state-related colleges: Lincoln University, the Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, and the University of Pittsburgh.

While the governor’s proposed $40 million, 7.1% increase across all four institutions in the Commonwealth System exceeds Pitt’s request (6%), it’s far below what Temple (16%), Lincoln (25%), and Penn State (48%) asked for, according to Spotlight PA. Lincoln specified their requested funds would be used for tuition and fee support, while Penn State stated it’d be used for student aid. Consequently, no state-related university leader committed to a tuition freeze if allotted Shapiro’s budget. The biggest losers among Pennsylvania’s state-related institutions are families from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

“And if you don’t have that kind of financial aid, particularly in a state with relatively high public college tuition like Pennsylvania, low- and moderate-income families just get priced out,” said Will Doyle said, a professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, according to Spotlight PA. He also co-authored a report that ranked Pennsylvania among the country’s least affordable states for higher education in 2016.

PASSHE seems also to have gotten the short end of the stick, despite having consolidated six universities into two last year to cut costs. Chancellor of PASSHE Daniel Greenstein asked for a 3.8% increase in state funding to help freeze tuition for a fifth year; however, the governor proposed only a 2% bump in funding. If the state cannot meet Greenstein’s requests, the system looks at hiking tuition up 4.5%, which will barely cover PASSHE’s existing costs. And as faculty are currently negotiating new contracts, that percentage may need to rise. If allocation for PASSHE doesn’t increase whatsoever, universities could be looking at a 7.5% tuition increase, which would be “horrific” for future enrollment trends in the state, according to one PASSHE university president.

Consequently, university officials and state leaders are tangled on what to do. “We firmly believe PASSHE universities cannot raise tuition and then expect to also receive increased state support,” Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Martin said in a statement, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We are committed to working together to adequately address the financial concerns of our higher education institutions.”

Long-term problems

The state of Pennsylvania has long been a culprit in reducing funding to its higher education system. Since 1980, public funding for the state’s institutions has decreased by 42%. So, despite last year’s 15% budget increase for PASSHE, the state university system still needs more funding to protect students from shouldering extra costs.

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher also blames the state’s lack of cohesion in addressing the state’s higher education.

“Pennsylvania’s approach can hardly be called a system. Some residents live near a wealth of state-supported schools, all with a different funding relationship to the commonwealth and all competing for the same, limited number of students, said Gallagher, according to The University of Pittsburgh. “Other residents live in areas where their window into a state-supported college campus is limited to a 60-second commercial break during football season.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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