For me, coming to Pennsylvania almost a year ago wasn’t an easy choice, but I didn’t come to do the easy thing. I came out of a deep, abiding, and long-standing commitment to the promise of public higher education, to the students and communities it serves, and to its incredible potential to uplift individuals and communities. Public higher education saves lives, energizes regional economies, contributes to a more equitable, just, fair, and tolerant society.
I came here because Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education is confronting the full range of challenges that are present in public higher education today. Here, the challenges are severely acute— concentrated in exceptionally high doses. From a national perspective, it’s fair to say: “As goes the Pa. state system, so goes the country’s public comprehensive universities.”
A move to this great state was not an easy choice because it entailed leaving my family behind—in Seattle—and missing our youngest child’s senior year in high school. I missed her 18th birthday party, her prom night, and countless tennis matches. And while I struggled with and supported her through the college application process, it was all by phone.
No, I did not come to Pennsylvania last September to do the easy thing.
Which brings me to the Board of Governors meeting last week where we all stared in the face a projected $63 million budget deficit for this year and still recommended a tuition freeze that the Board adopted by unanimous vote.
That budget gap is not only real, it is an underestimate. It only factors in the incremental cost of salary and benefits agreed to by the state with AFSCME—costs the System must bear but for which we will not receive additional funding.
The weight of resolving this deficit will be borne by university leaders who will continue with difficult budget trade-off decisions, the kind they’ve been making for over a decade. At the same time, faculty and staff will be asked to make do with less.
To date, the entire State System community has done remarkably well protecting our students and the quality of their experience, which testifies to our collective strengths. However, our current operations are financially unsustainable.
Despite this reality, another tuition increase was clearly the worst of all evils. Here’s why:
- Our students already bear a heavy burden. Pennsylvanians are 50th nationally in terms of worst student debt load, and there is evidence that after two decades of annual tuition increases, we are in danger of pricing ourselves out of the market. Students from low- and middle-income families—the Pennsylvanians our universities were created to serve—are turning away from us. There are a lot of factors contributing to this—including a strong economy and growing doubt about the value of college—even though research shows the advantages of a college education far outweigh its costs. But the total price of our education has a role to play.
- Our budget gap is structural. It reflects declining enrollments as well as rising costs. To address it systemically, we would have to increase tuition by more than seven or eight percent, which is neither conscionable nor sustainable. The drip, drip, drip of annual tuition hikes—which don’t even begin to address our financial challenges while unduly burdening our students—make no sense. To raise tuition again would be like giving aspirin to a terminally ill patient; it addresses the pain without proffering a cure.
- Public higher education is a partnership with the state. While we genuinely appreciate a fifth consecutive year of budget increases, the increase we received for 2019/20 is just a two percent boost, bringing the state’s share of our overall revenues to 27 percent. Twenty years ago, when last the Board of Governors froze tuition, the state’s contribution made up 47 percent of revenues.
State System universities—still the most affordable option for postsecondary education in this state—produce 26,000 career-ready graduates each year; 95 percent of them are employed within two years of graduation; 88 percent in their field of study; 72 percent in Pennsylvania.
Our universities employ more than 10,000 people; most institutions are the top employer in their regions and produce more than $6 billion in economic impact annually. They factor significantly in any forecast of the state’s economic health and well-being. The vast majority of new jobs in the 21st economy will require employees who have had some postsecondary education.
Higher education is a public good. It is a policy choice. And it is no longer feasible to continue to heap the burden of historic state divestment onto our students.
To address our structural challenges, we must refresh and renew our partnership with the state.
Through the ongoing System Redesign, our universities have committed to make tangible progress this year—managing the rising cost of tuition, aligning costs with revenues, getting our arms around the challenges that are confronted by our low-enrolled universities, and becoming radically transparent and accountable to our stakeholders, including our staff our faculty, our students, their families, and to members of the General Assembly.
Anyone who listened in on the Board meeting last week would have come away recognizing not only the commitment to this redesign but the significance and rapidity of its progress delivering on each of these promises.
In return, we must begin and make progress with a discussion about the level of state investment and about the regulatory environment that adds unnecessarily to our costs, remembering that our students pick up 75% of the bill for pretty much everything we do.
Investment in public higher education is not—or at least should not be—a partisan issue. It is a conversation—a vigorous debate even—about the future of Pennsylvania, about opportunities for social mobility, about stimuli for inward investment, and about the future of regional economies and communities. That debate forces us to ask serious questions:
- Will employers invest in a region where it is hard to find educated employees? (Amazon didn’t.)
- Where will our high school graduates enroll when it is less expensive for them to attend a public university in a neighboring state than it is to enroll in our most affordable in-state option? The data suggest that students who attend college out of state don’t tend to return home.
- What will happen to rural communities that are presently served so well by their universities if those universities continue to struggle financially? Is the cost of alleviating their severe socio-economic dislocation lower or higher than the cost of sustaining their universities?
And I am heartened to find a growing number of partners—in our leaders, our faculty and staff, our students, and particularly in the General Assembly—who are willing to confront the most consequential challenges that Pennsylvania will face in next few years, challenges for which their resolution will one way or another mark a long-lasting impact on the health and well-being of the people of this great Commonwealth.