Cliff diving – new normal for Pennsylvania higher ed?

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There is an adage that goes, "once is an accident, twice is a trend." With regards to the cliff funding - the proposed flat funding of public higher education for a second consecutive year - that adage is being perpetrated by the governor's office and being accepted by the leadership of the State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the four state universities. Governor Tom Corbett's history of cutting higher education is no secret, and the fight to restore those previous cuts was pretty obvious.

In 2011, public outcry reduced a proposed 50 percent cut in higher education funding to a cut around 20 percent. In 2012, public outcry was once again responsible for staving off proposed cuts between 20-30 percent and restore funding for higher education to 2011 levels when the Pennsylvania Senate passed its 2012-2013 budget plan.

When the announcement came that the cuts were taken off the table in 2012, Corbett gathered the leadership representing the 14 PASSHE institutions and the four state universities to have a nice photo op. Last month, a week before his budget, the governor brought the leadership of the same institutions to embrace cliff funding for another fiscal year. During his press conference, the governor said, "I think both sides understand that a young man or a young woman's future should not begin with a mountain of debt," and "our young people appreciate the investment Pennsylvania taxpayers make toward their education."

If this were the case, the governor would follow his colleagues from around the country and begin to reinvest in public higher education. According to Kevin Kiley from Inside Higher Ed, 31 states during the 2013 fiscal year began to reinvest in public higher education. But two states in particular, which have Republican governors and an abundance of natural resources, have made it through the Great Recession with budget surpluses and commitments to investing in public higher education. The report says Wyoming and North Dakota "are seeing large increases driven by natural resource booms," but both of these states have a much smaller population than Pennsylvania. Other Republican-controlled states that are increasing higher education funding are Nebraska and Nevada. In his budget address, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval asked for a $135 million increase in public education spending, and he proposed to extend a tax package that would send an extra $649 million to the state's general fund; most of which would be spent on public and higher education and Medicaid.

If Corbett's cliff funding of higher education becomes "the new normal" the burden will slowly be felt by those attending a publicly funded institution. For instance, if we accept the 2011/2012 funding level as the bar for public higher education spending - or an investment that students should appreciate from the taxpayers - the PASSHE system will actually lose money due to inflation. When adjusted to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, the state system of higher education has lost $8.25 million a year for the past two years.

If there is a chance in advocating for reinvesting in public higher education, that opportunity was extended last week when Interim Chancellor Peter Garland and PASSHE representatives were in front of the state Senate Appropriations Committee. At the hearing, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jake Corman, R-Center County, thanked the PASSHE representatives for keeping tuition increases at a minimum over the last few years, especially with not receiving any funding increases over the previous budgets, and the Senate leader proceeded to throw a lifeboat to the interim chancellor and the PASSHE representatives by repeatedly asking if there was anything that the committee can do for the state system.

The senator then explains the importance of the university system, especially in the northern tier where there isn't much access to community colleges. He reiterated that these schools provide higher ed access for those residents, especially commuters who can't afford to live on campus. He ended his comments thanking the PASSHE leaders, but also making the point that the state needs to give more than moral support, and he puts the onus on PASSHE to explain the budget ramifications. After Corman spoke, Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Phila./Montgomery Co., addressed the same points and added that maintaining schools are costly.

Reversing the trend of the "new normal" and reinvesting in public higher education will need to be sparked by the collective citizenry of the Commonwealth. If Corman and Hughes and the other members of the Appropriations Committee are throwing this lifeline to PASSHE leaders, it is an opportunity for the public, parents and students to be the third party at the table. Over the next few months, we'll be looking at what can be done in Pennsylvania, what can be done nationally and how student groups have successfully fought back against budget cuts and tuition increases.

Sean Kitchen is the assistant editor for the Raging Chicken Press, a progressive, activist media outlet focusing on Pennsylvania politics.

Photo: (No Corbett at Millersville/Tumblr)

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