Policymakers | Costs

Higher education could face significant changes because of dwindling state support

HARRISBURG PATRIOT-NEWS   |  February 12, 2012 by Jan Murphy

Pennsylvania has perfected the art of examining the way it delivers higher education—and then doing little with what it has learned.

Several studies have been done over the years, only to be ignored. Now Gov. Tom Corbett wants another study.

This time, observers suggest the outcome could be different.

In the 2012-13 budget he introduced last week, Corbett is seeking steep cuts to the state’s public universities. And he’s raising bigger, fundamental questions.

What is the state’s role in supporting higher education?

How many colleges does Pennsylvania need, and what should they do?

With so many graduates saddled with mortgage-sized debt in the wake of soaring tuition bills, who should be going to a four-year college?

“We’ve gone through a tech bubble. We’ve gone through a housing bubble. Both of those burst. Now we are looking at the potential for a higher-ed bubble, and students are asking themselves…’What’s the value?’ ” state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis said.

Corbett last week appointed a 30-member commission of education and business professionals to take a hard look at the state’s higher-education system. The panel faces a Nov. 15 deadline.

The chancellor of the State System of Higher Education is happy to see this day come.

John Cavanaugh, a respected voice on the national higher-education scene, said the state needs to get its arms around its massive system of 257 public, private and quasi-public colleges and universities.

And the state must figure out what it values.

“It’s really important for the state to understand what does it want in terms of higher education for the future for economic development, for its educated citizenry reasons and how can we in higher education play better with each other and collaborate,” said Cavanaugh, a commission member.

The various higher-education sectors—the State System, the private colleges, community colleges and the “state-related” schools (Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities)—have long battled for students and the shrinking pool of state aid.

The sector wars have been cited by former legislators as the reason little has changed on the state’s higher-education landscape, despite the recommendations from studies in each of the last three decades.

Whether the discussion can get past these turf wars is the key question, said Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, which represents 88 of the state’s private colleges.

But it’s been over a decade since they engaged in this type of overarching conversation.

“We all need to wake up and recognize times have changed,” said Francis, another commission member.

“If we don’t rationally change our policies to target state aid more effectively, then we will see access for all diminish,” he said.

Colleges could close. Fewer and fewer students will be able to afford college. Penn State and the other state-related schools could increasingly raise tuition for in-state students to the point where they mirror the out-of-state rate.

Corbett’s commission must focus on the challenge of preparing students for the workforce while making college less expensive for taxpayers and students.

It seems clear that higher education in Pennsylvania is poised to change.

Too many colleges?

In Corbett’s lean budget, he proposes $1.4 billion for higher education. It marks a substantial decline from the state’s high-water mark of more than $2.19 billion in 2007-08.

“This is one area where we simply couldn’t go as far as we would have liked in support,” said Corbett’s budget secretary, Charles Zogby.

Corbett proposed cutting aid to Penn State, Pitt and Temple by about 30 percent.

If Corbett gets lawmakers to sign off on his budget, he will have cut the state’s aid to those three schools by 50 percent in his first two years in office.

Is there a day when the state will cut aid to Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple entirely? Will they one day become private schools?

“If that was the goal, to move these schools to privatization, there would have been a simpler method to do that,” Tomalis said. In other words, propose nothing for them.

Tomalis added that topic would be an interesting question for the commission to pursue.

Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said he hopes the commission looks at areas where the state might have too many public colleges. His perspective is noteworthy for two reasons: he’s the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and Penn State’s main campus sits in his district.

“Maybe we don’t need all those [Penn State] branch campuses. Maybe we don’t need 14 [State System] schools,” Corman said.

The State System is a target of cuts in the governor’s budget. Corbett proposes a 20 percent cut to the 14 State System universities, including Millersville and Shippensburg.

Cavanaugh plans to suggest more partnerships between public, private and state-related schools to share programs and courses. Given the way Pennsylvania’s higher-education system is built out, with clusters of institutions sitting in certain pockets of the state, it’s feasible.

He pointed to Amherst, Mass., where five public and private institutions allow their students to cross-register for some courses.

“There are huge differentials in tuition sticker prices amongst the five, but they’ve been able to work it out in terms of being able to transfer those credits, and you charge the home institution’s price,” he said.

‘It’s just up, up, up’

To critics of Corbett’s budget proposal, it seems illogical to study ways to make college more affordable while cutting state aid.

But as Corbett has noted, Pennsylvania’s universities have raised tuition consistently for years, even when state aid was more generous.

Penn State’s tuition has more than doubled within the past decade. This year, in-state students pay $15,124 in tuition, up from $7,054 a decade ago.

Ashley Bryant, 20, and Thristan Lundy, 22, enjoy grants and scholarships that enable them to focus on their criminal justice studies at Penn State Harrisburg rather than worry about debt.

But Bryant, who hails from Washington, D.C., is up against the line. Another tuition hike could push her into the red. If this occurs, she wouldn’t be above protesting at the state Capitol—even if she ultimately sees herself as an FBI agent or Homeland Security operative.

“They raise the price every year,” Bryant said.

Dan Shriver sees both sides of Penn State.

The 20-year-old’s father works for the university in State College, so he knows Penn State is a huge employer with a ton of costs.

But as a sophomore at the Harrisburg campus trying to pay his own way, Shriver sees an increasingly crowded, 4,500-student campus with dorm rooms for around 900, class sizes that keep swelling and a swamped cafeteria.

Amid all this, tuition just keeps rising, along with the ever-lengthening list of charges and fees tacked on.

“If you came here for the small classes, you’re really not getting that,” Shriver said.

It’s enough to cause inquiring minds to wonder where the money’s going.

“It’s just up, up, up—every single year,” said sophomore Harry Devine, 20, of Lower Paxton Township. ‘It’s frustrating. What do we even get out of it?”

Among the group of engineering students taking a break in the Olmsted building last week, the question goes unanswered. This one has them all stumped.

The 14 State System universities continue to offer the least expensive four-year degrees in the state.

But the State’s System tuition of $6,240 is fast approaching a level that puts it out of reach for some Pennsylvanians. The system’s tuition has risen more than 50 percent in the last decade.

There’s a reason for that rising tuition rate, said former House member Ron Cowell. Pennsylvania is one of the stingier states when it comes to state support for higher-education institutions.

“There is a connection between the level of state support and the degree to which institutions have to rely on tuition,” said Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center. “That reality should not be ignored by the commission.”

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent over the past 25 years, more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care.

Lessons from other states

Too many colleges are trying to offer every major to every student, critics say. Colleges must focus on programs where they excel and shed programs where they are less competitive.

With so many colleges, Pennsylvania must begin to prioritize academic programs and eliminate duplication, said Michael Poliakoff, a former state deputy education secretary.

Other states have begun that work.

Missouri appointed a board that eliminated 72 four-year degree programs and 46 two-year degree programs, said Poliakoff, the vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Louisiana’s board of regents eliminated 109 programs and merged 63 others. Minnesota’s system of public colleges and universities closed 345 programs and approved 191 new ones between 2007 and 2009.

“Higher education needs the kind of leadership that is looking at the faces of students and taxpayers and not living in fear of a faculty vote of no-confidence,” he said. “We need some real tough-mindedness coming from top leadership.”

Institutions’ boards also need to get tough on where costs are rising. If it’s in the administrative areas, that’s a sign of misplaced priorities, he said. They need to look at better use of classroom buildings and laboratories rather than building more facilities that sit empty most of the day.

They need to find a way to reward faculty that encourages higher teaching loads and puts less of an emphasis on low-impact research.

Several people interviewed suggested the state should look at making better use of its low-cost community colleges. They should be the entry point for more students pursuing four-year degrees.

Pat Krebs of Campbelltown, a former state House member, once chaired a subcommittee on higher education. In the 1990s, her panel studied community colleges.

Krebs recalled a consultant who raised concerns about the number of students going to costly four-year research institutions for their freshman and sophomore years when community colleges were a more affordable option.

Massachusetts turned to its community colleges for a different reason.

In the Bay State, many students entering public universities were ill-prepared for college-level work. Too many were taking remedial courses, which was proving to be a waste of taxpayer funding to those schools, Poliakoff said.

So the state raised admission requirements at the public colleges and encouraged students who aren’t academically strong to start at the community colleges.

The state has saved enough money to pay for a tuition assistance program that allows students who earn community college degrees to get their tuition reduced by a third to finish their four-year degrees at public colleges.

“That’s a smart use of the money,” Poliakoff said.

Status quo can’t last

The last Pennsylvania governor to call for a higher-education study was former Gov. Dick Thornburgh in the 1980s. At least three legislative-commissioned studies have been done since at no small cost. The last one, done in 2001, cost $326,000.

That one, like the others, “ultimately led to no change,” Cowell said. “But that’s not a reason to give up.”

Larry Wittig, a commission member and chairman of the State Board of Education, said this time should be different.

For one thing, he’s confident that Corbett is going to take the commission’s recommendations seriously.

For another, he said, the status quo can’t remain. The state can’t afford it. Students can’t afford it. The business community can’t afford it.

“Am I optimistic that something is going to be done? Yes. Do I think it’s gong to be revolutionary? Maybe not so much, but it’s going to be something,” he said.

“Because financially, it’s a very, very bad time, and with all the clouds on the horizon, we as a state have to be looking down the road and doing something that’ll be long lasting, not just something that is cosmetic and beating around the bush.”


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