Pennsylvania tuition hikes are shortsighted and wrong

When the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education earlier this month hiked tuition at our 14 state universities, it struck a nerve with state Treasurer Joe Torsella.

A Democrat who took office in January, Torsella oversees college savings plans, including one he instituted that’s funded with philanthropic and family donations, not tax dollars, available to every child born in the state.

So, he naturally called a new 3.5 percent tuition increase from PASSHE “deeply disappointing.” He said our higher ed system needs reform. He said, “Forcing overburdened families to pay more is not the right path forward.”

It didn’t surprise me that Torsella spoke out. It surprised me that few others did.

Then again, this is a Pennsylvania pattern: Those in power make bad decisions after not dealing with recurring problems, and everybody else shrugs.

Recurrent problems in this case include rising costs, changing demographics, unsustainable union contracts and pension payouts, legislative inattention, questionable governance, and a PASSHE deficit of $72 million, half of which is to be paid off by middle-class students and families.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s Pennsylvania’s Groundhog Day.

It’s like the annual state budget and every other state problem. Nobody pays attention to trends. Nobody adjusts policy to reality. Nobody works toward anything other than their next job or election.

Our policymakers are shortsighted, small-thinking, and wrong.

There are multiple reasons why they’re wrong on new tuition hikes.

Pennsylvania already has the nation’s second-highest college debt, according to a CNBC report last week. The average in the state is $34,798.

Tuition and fees for in-state students at Pennsylvania’s tax-supported universities are the nation’s third-highest, according to the nonprofit College Board.

Think there’s a correlation?

New York state just made its college system tuition-free for middle-class students. Maybe out-of-state, higher-paying New York students attending or thinking about our state schools close to New York – Edinboro, Mansfield, East Stroudsburg – will think again, and further drop already shrinking enrollment here.

The Inquirer and Daily News reported last week on a new study – which cost PASSHE nearly $400,000 – critical of PASSHE’s structure, governance, and leadership.

The 14 university presidents keep getting raises. They make around a quarter-million dollars a year, some more, according to PASSHE data.

And the head of the system, Frank Brogan (who makes $346,000 a year), is leaving.

Meanwhile, in an economy requiring at least some post-secondary education for the overwhelming majority of new jobs, there’s this: Current U.S. Census data show that the percentage of Pennsylvanians with a college degree (28.6 percent) is below the national average, lower than every other mid-Atlantic state and lower than every other northeastern state.

And what are we doing about it? We’re hiking tuition. Just like last year. And the year before that.

(Tuition also is going up at costlier “state-related” schools: Penn State, Temple, Lincoln, and Pitt.)

“I think we’re making a terrible mistake,” Torsella tells me. “The life raft of our economy is a higher level of education across the state.”

Are there answers?

Torsella says, “State investment in higher education is clearly inadequate,” and institutions need to look at cost drivers and seriously discuss reversing them.

But here’s the thing. Data from the Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association shows  Pennsylvania slashed higher ed funding by nearly 20 percent between 2011 and 2016, one of only five states making such deep cuts. (The pending state budget includes a 2 percent PASSHE increase.)

Our legislature, demonstrably, can’t act with any foresight in any area. Why would higher ed be different? And PASSHE hasn’t exactly shown itself as a breeding ground of innovation.

Meanwhile, more than 25,000 state university students, almost a quarter of the statewide total, from Philly and its four collar counties are paying more.

And who knows how many others are being priced out of their future?