Corbett again targets higher education

Gov. Corbett’s proposed state budget could be a prescription for disaster for higher education in Pennsylvania. The total $27.13 billion spending plan would avoid tax increases, but deeply cut funds for most state colleges and universities.

Three of the four state-related universities — Temple, Penn State, and the University of Pittsburgh — would take the biggest hits, about a 30 percent cut each. Only Lincoln University among that group wouldn’t see a reduction; its funding would remain at the current-year level of $11.1 million. The 14 colleges in the State System of Higher Education would see their funding slashed by 20 percent. Community colleges could get a smaller funding cut.

Then-Penn State President Graham B. Spanier successfully fought to reduce proposed funding cuts by Gov. Corbett last year. (PAUL VATHIS / Associated Press)

In his budget address to lawmakers Tuesday, Corbett said, “These tough decisions will lay the groundwork for the prosperity of tomorrow.” But for thousands of struggling families, the governor’s proposed budget brings the likelihood of more tuition increases, which could put a college education for their children beyond their reach.

It’s true that higher education can and must do a better job of finding efficiencies and reducing costs. But the state’s colleges and universities cannot afford another major hit like the one Corbett now proposes. If it really values higher education, the legislature must find another way.

In seeking alternatives, lawmakers should first demand that the state-related schools have a chance to appear at budget hearings to make their individual appeals for adequate funding. In a highly unusual move, Senate appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R., Centre) has decided not to hold the budget hearings for higher education that usually occur each February. Corman said they weren’t needed because hearings were held last fall across the state. But those five hearings were held months prior to Corbett’s budget address and before school officials had a clear picture of his proposed cuts.

Corman also canceled a budget hearing for the state’s judiciary, but now says a hearing on the courts’ budget will be scheduled. He needs to change his mind about higher-education budget hearings, too. These hearings will also provide an opportunity for lawmakers to ask university officials about other issues pertinent to the taxpayers who fund these institutions, including how Penn State handled the child sex-abuse scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

There is some speculation that avoiding that subject is why Corman called off the hearings. But the reason to hold them goes far beyond that. The public should know how each school would spend the tax dollars it receives, and the budget hearings provide the best opportunity to learn that.

Budget hearings last year helped then-Penn State president Graham B. Spanier persuade the legislature to reduce Corbett’s planned cuts. Senate Democratic appropriations Chairman Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) says he may hold hearings if Corman won’t. That’s good. Higher education should have a forum to plead its case.