At Pa. hearing on cuts in college aid, Christie's added college funding is praised

What a difference a trip across the Delaware River could make for college students and their tuition-paying parents.

Gov. Christie this week proposed a 5.5 percent increase in New Jersey's funding for state colleges and universities, plus a $28 million ramp-up in financial aid for students and a $1 million aid program to help inner-city students get to college.

"In our society, education is the key to advancement," Christie said during his budget address Tuesday. "More attainment in education is the path to more earnings and success in life. And a highly educated work force is a key to New Jersey's competitiveness. So we must continue to fund higher education, and to make it more available to everyone with the brains and ambition to climb that ladder to success."

Conversely, in Pennsylvania, also run by a Republican governor, higher education is in the crosshairs.

Gov. Corbett has proposed a 30 percent cut in funding for three of the four state-related universities and a 20 percent cut for the 14 colleges in the state system.

The difference in the states' approaches was raised several times in Harrisburg on Wednesday during a House hearing on the budget for the four state-related schools - Penn State, Temple, Pittsburgh, and Lincoln.

"There is a governor from a Northeastern state that gets the value of higher education - and it happens to be across the border in New Jersey," said Rep. Matt Smith (D., Allegheny), who listed the proposed increases Gov. Christie would make to higher education in New Jersey. "And he really put dollars behind his words."

Under Christie's proposal, Rutgers - the state's flagship public university - would receive $482 million next fiscal year, up from $456 million. Rowan University's appropriation would grow to about $90 million from nearly $80 million.

Comparatively, under Corbett's budget proposal, Penn State would receive $163 million, down from $227 million this year. Temple's subsidy would drop to $98 million, from nearly $140 million, and Pitt's to $95 million from $136 million.

Lincoln's funding would not be cut. It would remain at about $11 million for the historically black school.

While both states have struggled to keep a lid on taxes, the difference is how the governors elect to spend billions in public money. One difference is that New Jersey's revenue projections for next year are better than Pennsylvania's. New Jersey anticipates a 7 percent increase in revenues, compared with a 3.8 percent jump in Pennsylvania. But Pennsylvania also is facing a $500 million shortfall for the current fiscal year, which has prompted the cuts.

However, the difference in higher education funding proposals wasn't lost on the four Pennsylvania college chiefs who made their case to lawmakers for higher education funding at a hearing that ran almost three hours.

"It really isn't an overstatement, in my perspective, to say that in certain respects what we are seeing is a dismantling of a long, long commitment by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to public higher education," said Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

He added that there was "a fundamental disconnect" between Corbett's proposed funding cuts for colleges and his desire to have students graduate who can take jobs and remain in the state. In his budget speech this month, the governor made a point to say that funding should be targeted to educational institutions and programs that train students for jobs specific to Pennsylvania.

Penn State president Rodney Erickson noted that the administration's cuts to higher education would push the state-related universities toward privatization, which would result in higher tuition for families already struggling to educate their children.

The college leaders said that if they were to pass on the cut to students, it would amount to significant increases in tuition. At Temple, for example, it would mean a $4,000 hike and at Pitt a nearly $3,000 hike.

But they said they would try to not let that happen.

"We will do our level best to turn over every rock to find the cost savings," Erickson said.

Penn State students graduate with an average debt of about $33,000, more than the national average, Erickson noted.

Some Pennsylvania lawmakers critically questioned the leaders about spending and their lack of willingness to be placed fully under the state's right-to-know law.

Temple president Ann Weaver Hart said it would cost Temple several million dollars to set up an office to handle information requests if the school were under all facets of the law. But she didn't rule out the possibility.

"We're interested in talking with you about it," she said.

Despite the questions, the hearing for the state-related schools was much less contentious than last year, when then-Penn State president Graham B. Spanier sparred with legislators over proposed spending cuts.

 


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or @ssnyderinq on Twitter.