The past decade has been a tumultuous time for higher education in Pennsylvania.
Still reeling from former Gov. Tom Corbett’s massive cuts and skyrocketing tuition costs, Pennsylvania was ranked the worst state for higher education in 2018 by U.S. News & World Report.
The next governor will be chosen by voters on Tuesday. Whichever candidate wins — whether it’s Republican former state Sen. Scott Wagner or Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf — he’ll likely have to take on the massive challenges the state’s higher education system faces.
Education is a top priority for both Wagner and Wolf. But neither outlined comprehensive plans to fund higher education in their campaign platforms or in requests from The Temple News.
On top of ensuring that state-related schools receive funding, it’s likely the winner will need to address the hardships Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE, is experiencing.
PASSHE includes the 14 state-owned universities like West Chester University, Shippensburg University and Kutztown University. Some of these state schools are facing massive issues, like enrollment numbers dropping for the eighth consecutive year.
Although Temple is not a part of the system, it’s included in conversations in the state Capitol about how to solve PASSHE’s issues. Temple is one of four state-related institutions alongside the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Lincoln University. These schools are privately operated, but they receive state allocations.
Pennsylvania’s higher education system — like the state itself — is diverse. These schools, including their satellite campuses, are spread across the state and serve rural areas like Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and urban parts of the state like North Philadelphia. The students who attend these schools are just as socioeconomically diverse.
SOLVING PASSHE’S PROBLEMS
The state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee commissioned the RAND Corporation to analyze the state education system’s problems and provide suggestions for handling them. The report, released in April, and an earlier one completed by the state system, combined to cost taxpayers $650,000 to complete.
The nearly 100-page report outlines the challenges schools are currently facing and how those could get worse as Pennsylvania’s college-age population declines. It also attempts to outline the political and internal issues within the state system.
Then, it provides five solutions the state could apply, which include consolidating PASSHE schools. This could include consolidating campuses under schools within the state system, closing low-performing schools or the one solution that would affect Temple the most: consolidating state schools under a state-related institution.
The final solution gained some momentum in June among some General Assembly Republican leaders, like House Speaker Mike Turzai, who is also on the Board of Governors for the state system, TribLive reported.
But Mark Price, the research director at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said this solution won’t fix Pennsylvania higher education’s core problem: costs are rising faster than people’s incomes.
“The RAND report really struck me as the most expensive investigation that effectively had the worst possible recommendation,” Price said.
“The pitch you want to make is if you close or consolidate, this problem will go away,” he added. “That’s a horrifically simple-minded approach.”
No matter what the next governor decides to advocate for to his legislature, state education leaders oppose the RAND study in fear that it would limit desks in the most vulnerable areas of the state.
“If the Commonwealth takes one of [RAND]’s suggestions, fewer students would be able to afford college, and even those who could, would have their opportunities severely reduced,” wrote Kenneth Mash, the president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, in a release.
The biggest relationship between state-related and state system schools is that these schools are competing for the same students, Price said.
“Penn State competes with Pitt, Pitt competes with Temple and they all compete with schools in the state system…and all of the private [institutions],” he added. “One of the common themes among all schools is they’re all suffering right now because the population of students is decreasing, so they’re all competing from a smaller pool of students and it’s all affecting them in their own unique ways.”
Private institutions must invest in more scholarships to increase student enrollment, Price said. State-related institutions must raise costs when the state doesn’t add to its yearly appropriation. State schools try to do the same, but because many of them serve poorer populations, the rising cost drives these students away from enrollment, Price said.
If the RAND report receives more support in the legislature, it would “kick the ball down the field” to state-related universities, he added.
“Temple University, serving a relatively diverse student population, both diverse racially and income-wise, it’s going to have the same problems if the tuition continues to rise in 10-15 years,” he said. “Doing the RAND approach does give [these schools] a few more years…but it doesn’t address the primary problem.”
THE FUTURE UNDER THE NEXT GOVERNOR
“How doomed are we? It’s a tough one,” Price said with a laugh.
Both gubernatorial candidates touted their accomplishments or ideas to fix the K-12 system throughout this campaign season. But neither focused on the state’s higher education system.
Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Wolf, told The Temple News the governor would “continue to fight for more education funding at all levels, including higher education.”
Wagner would re-evaluate each program at each institution to revamp them and “provide access for our aging workforce to retrain their skill set,” spokesperson Andrew Romeo wrote in an email. He’d also try to find misused funds to give to higher education by implementing zero-based budgeting, a system that reduces costs by evaluating expenses during each period, according to Forbes.
But neither candidate will step up to make lowering tuition and repairing the state’s higher education system a priority, Price projected.
Wagner, a Republican who opposes raising taxes, would be less likely to lead the state to the funding levels necessary to save state system and state-related institutions, Price said. Wolf would equally struggle, because the legislature will likely remain Republican-controlled after Tuesday’s elections. And Wolf hasn’t expressed enough interest in taking on the higher education beast.
Other states have made strides toward decreasing or ending tuition for students. In 2017, New York rolled out its Excelsior Scholarship program, which offers more than 940,000 middle-class families making up to $125,000 per year the opportunity to attend college tuition free at all of its City University of New York and the State University of New York campuses in the state. Rutgers University has a similar program for New Jersey residents.
“Everywhere is doing a slightly better job than we are,” Price added.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, introduced the PA Promise program this summer, which would cover tuition and fees for recent high school graduates in Pennsylvania whose families earn $110,000 or less. These students could attend any of the state’s 14 state-run universities and state-related institutions. The proposal has a $1 billion price tag, and Hughes has not outlined a way to pay for it.
Price said this method would be the answer to Pennsylvania’s higher education problems, despite that there is no feasible pathway to funding the program.
“The state has not done its fair share to fund the state system or the state-related institutions,” Price said. “Dealing with the cost of higher education, you’ve got to make it a priority.”