Among vast amounts of at-risk funding trapped in Pennsylvania’s inane budget impasse is money for in-state students at Temple, Pitt, Lincoln, and Penn State.
It’s about $600 million. It makes a huge difference in tuition costs. Huge, as in five-figure discounts from what out-of-state students are charged.
Temple president Richard Englert wrote in an Inquirer op-ed piece this week that absent this state funding, tuition discounts of close to $12,000 a-year at the North Philly-based university “would be over, and student debt would increase dramatically.”
Other schools are barking, too. For Lincoln, the aid in question makes up 25 percent of its operating budget.
This couldn’t come at a worse time.
And putting higher-ed money in any jeopardy is another step in the wrong direction for a state already walking briskly down a path of stupid.
Pennsylvania has the nation’s third-most-expensive (behind Vermont and New Hampshire) tuition and fees at four-year public institutions, according to the College Board, a nonprofit founded in 1900 to expand college access.
The state ranks second (behind New Hampshire) in college debt, with an average of $24,172 upon graduation.
Our state system of 14 universities (including Cheyney and West Chester) this year hiked tuition 3.5 percent, in part because the system lost 12 percent of its enrollment over the last six years.
We sit somewhere near the middle nationally, and at the bottom of Northeastern states, in percentage of population with college degrees.
And, meanwhile, the financial website 24/7 Wall St. ranks Pennsylvania 47th in state spending on higher ed.
Now we’re sitting on, holding up, putting at risk special tuition aid for our own.
State aid for these four schools dates back to the 1960s, when they were designated state-related (as opposed to the 14 state universities) and pledged annual funding from the legislature in exchange for lower costs for residents.
And, yes, college isn’t for everyone, and we need people with trade school and vocational education. But who doubts higher education leads to higher wages, better health, and a range of benefits to any economy?
Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Council, a nonprofit education advocacy group, is a former Allegheny County Democratic lawmaker who spent a dozen years as chairman or minority chairman of the House Education Committee.
“Higher education is integral to the state’s economy and future,” he says. “We have an aging population, huge fiscal uncertainty, a reputation for being cheap when it comes to education … so it’s already hard to persuade young people to go to college in the state.”
And, he says, the legislature, “with each passing year, shows it is not inclined to raise significant revenue and more inclined to put Band-Aids on a patient bleeding more and more. It’s totally irresponsible.”
The funds require a two-thirds vote on separate bills in the House and Senate, usually a routine annual occurrence as part of budget passage. Not this year. A full budget, due last June, remains undone.
Gov. Wolf’s policy secretary, Sarah Galbally, calls this funding an administration priority, but, given legislative inaction, fears further, even midyear, tuition hikes.
She says if lawmakers get the bills to Wolf’s desk, even without funding, “we’ll figure out” how to pay for them.
The legislature is out of town until Monday. There is at present no sign of a revenue deal.
Ironically, the state — long embroiled in fights over K-12 spending — has shown improved high school test scores and just broke into the top 10 “smartest states” in a July CNBC report on best states for business. That’s good.
But the same report notes the state faces challenges because it’s “seriously lagging the rest of the nation in funding its state colleges and universities.”
It’s as if we fight against ourselves.