Pa.'s dubious distinction: No. 1 in college debt per student

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Old Main on the Penn State campus in State College. “Crucial funding for institutions like Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln was in limbo for months in the Harrisburg budget fight,” says Treasurer Joe Torsella.

Pennsylvanians believe in fairness. It was here that we famously declared “all men are created equal” and founded a nation based on “We, the People.” We have affirmed over and over again that we believe in those ideals.

Sadly, our practice sometimes falls short.

One glaring example comes in a new study where Pennsylvania took the No. 1 national ranking for most college debt per student. The average Pennsylvania graduate now leaves school with more than $35,000 in debt to go along with the diploma.

By financially crippling these students out of the starting gate, we aren’t just darkening their futures. We are stunting the growth of Pennsylvania’s economy, by making it harder for them to buy homes or start businesses. We’re also betraying our commitment to fairness, by tolerating a world in which only the wealthy can stay ahead, while working families fall further behind.

Pennsylvania’s dubious No. 1 ranking comes in the same year as yet another annual tuition increase (3.5 percent) by the State System of Higher Education, and crucial funding for institutions like Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln was in limbo for months in the Harrisburg budget fight.

This crisis has been decades in the making. For the last 40 years, college tuition in the United States grew 38 times faster than household income. This steady increase is nearly triple the rate of inflation. The median household income in Pennsylvania has remained stagnant while the cost of public collegeshas skyrocketed. And when prices explode and incomes stall, the predictable result is a rise in debt to pay for degrees.

What’s behind the rise in college tuitions? One culprit is the cost structure of higher education itself. A study of Pennsylvania’s system found that costs are not keeping pace with enrollment trends. Where enrollment is up, costs are up. Where enrollment is down, costs are still up. In other words, higher education institutions need to do a better job at managing their costs.

But another culprit is a sharp decline in state support for higher education. Currently, state support for public universities remains below where it was before the recession, when the State System of Higher Education took several years of devastating cuts. Pennsylvania’s state funding per student remains less than two-thirds of the national average.

Unfortunately, the impact of these cuts are not felt by the people who make them. They’re felt by the electricians who are forced to take on debt for the trade programs they need to get hired. They’re felt by the medical students who take on years of debt just to pay for tuition that rises every year. They’re felt by the students and families who are left to make up the difference.

It’s time for a big and bold conversation about what public higher education in Pennsylvania should look like in the 21st century, a conversation that looks at both reform and reinvestment.

Critics will point to the budget stalemate in Harrisburg this year as evidence that we can’t do bold visions and serious investments anymore in Pennsylvania. They will say that we shouldn’t give more support to students when we can barely pay for the costs we have now.

They have it backward. Georgetown University found that 95 percent of jobs added since 2010 require some form of postsecondary education, whether trade school, community college, or a four-year program. When postsecondary education is the price of entry for the new job market, we can’t afford not to find a way to ensure that everyone willing to work hard has a shot to get ahead.

Not just for our kids’ sake, but for our own. Today’s kindergartner is tomorrow’s surgeon or steamfitter, teacher or tech worker. As much as they are depending on us, we are depending on them.

This No. 1 ranking should come as a wake-up call. Pennsylvania needs to reinvest in and reimagine public higher education, and build a fairer future where everyone can get the skills they need without drowning in debt.

Joe Torsella is treasurer of Pennsylvania. @JoeTorsella