As state funding to colleges erodes, students feel the pinch

West Chester University's statue of the ram mascot is seen with the old library in the background.

Since 2008, state funding for higher education has eroded significantly across the country, and Pennsylvania has been one of the hardest-hit states, says a new report being released Thursday.

State funding per student for public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania is down 33 percent from 2007-08 when adjusted for inflation, according to the report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank.

In March, the Assembly approved the first increase in higher education funding for the 14-university State System of Higher Education since 2008-09. Officials at the center said their study took into account the nearly $21 million boost.

"Even with the increase this year, we are operating with the same level of funding we received in 1998 from the state," said Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the system. "And that's not figuring in inflationary figures."

Pennsylvania's percentage funding decline since 2008 is the fifth-steepest in the country, behind Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Delaware was 10th, down 28.8 percent, and New Jersey 13th, down 23.2 percent. In dollars, per-student state funding has fallen $2,234 in Pennsylvania, $2,531 in Delaware, and $2,281 in New Jersey, adjusted for inflation.

Funding for public colleges nationally has decreased by $8.7 billion since 2008 after adjusting for inflation, the report said.

The study covered two- and four-year universities that receive state funding, including the state system schools in Pennsylvania, community colleges, and Temple University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Lincoln University.

State system schools are West Chester, Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Millersville, Bloomsburg, Shippensburg, Indiana, California, Slippery Rock, Clarion, Edinboro, Lockhaven, and Mansfield Universities.

As state funding falls, tuitions are rising, programs and faculty are being cut, and some campuses are closing, the report said.

"These choices have made college less affordable and less accessible for students who need degrees to succeed in today's economy," the report said.

At four-year public colleges nationally, tuition has climbed an average of $2,333, or 33 percent since 2007-08, the report said. In Pennsylvania, tuition is up 19.7 percent or $2,202, in New Jersey, 16.7 percent or $1,903, and in Delaware, 30.8 percent or $2,751.

As a result, students across the country are paying a larger percentage of the total cost of public higher education, the study showed.

In Pennsylvania's state system, student tuition and fees cover nearly three-quarters of costs - a complete reversal from when the system was founded and state funding covered 75 percent, Marshall said. The average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at the state system universities in 2015-16 was $19,838.

In the last five years, the state system has cut 900 positions, nearly 7 percent of its workforce, Marshall said. At the same time, it has discontinued or placed in moratorium 400 programs, though it has added about 300 others, resulting in a 100-program net loss.

Pennsylvania's state system got a 5 percent boost in funding this year, raising its appropriation for 2015-16 to $433.3 million.

"At least there is a beginning of the restoration of funding, which we hope continues," Marshall said.

But Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said that in an election year, legislatures are leery of raising taxes, and that when they need to cut, higher education is often vulnerable.

Marshall said the state system has requested $85 million more for 2016-17, while Gov. Wolf has included $21 million, or a 5 percent bump, in his budget.

If Wolf's budget is passed, Marshall said, the system will have to close the gap with a tuition increase, budget cuts, or a combination.

New Jersey was one of only nine states in the nation to cut funding to higher education for the 2015-16 academic year, Michael Klein, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, wrote recently. That cut followed others over more than a decade, he noted.

"These reductions," he wrote, "place New Jersey near the bottom of national comparisons for state support for higher education."

ssnyder@phillynews.com 215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq www.philly.com/campusinq