Editor’s note: This article is cross-posted from the PA Students Voice website.
There is an old idiom that: “once is an accident, twice is a trend.” And with regards to the cliff funding – the proposed “flat funding” of public higher education for a second consecutive year – of higher education, that idiom is being perpetuated by the Governor’s office and being accepted by the leadership of the State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the four state related universities. Governor 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 further cuts were taken off the table in 2012, Governor Corbett gathered the leadership representing the 14 PASSHE institutions and the four state related universities for a nice photo-op, and then proceeded to explain that his proposed higher education budget cuts were taken off the table. Then last month, a week before his budget, the governor brought the leadership of the PASSHE institutions and four state related institutions to embrace the notion of cliff funding higher public education 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, Governor Corbett 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, both with 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 states that 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 witnessing an increase in 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 Governor Corbett’s cliff funding of higher education becomes “the new normal” the burden of 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 to advocate 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 Senate Appropriations Committee. At the hearing, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jake Corman (R) from Center County thanked the PASSHE representatives for keeping tuition increases at a minimum over the last few years, especially given that the System had not seen any funding increases in the two previous budgets. 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. Senator Corman said:
“I do get to a point where I am concerned – you do see a 17% cut two years ago, flat funded this year, flat funded next year, assuming the budget holds – of our quality… I guess I can help you improve that quality by finding you more money, but that is unfortunately the state of our finances these days. But I do think it is important for you at some point to come before this committee, because every budget item has consequences – positive and negative. And if we get to the point, we’re not going to be able to provide services that you currently provide at the level you provide.”
The senator then went on to explain the importance of the university system, especially in the northern tier where there isn’t much access to community colleges or other affordable options for higher education. He reiterated the point that these schools provide access for those in the area, especially commuters who wouldn’t be able to afford living on campuses. 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 Senator Corman spoke, Senator Hughes addressed the same points and added the fact that maintenance and maintaining the 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 Senators Corman and Hughes and the other members of the Appropriations Committee are throwing this large of a lifeboat to PASSHE leaders, it is an opportune time for the public, the parents and the students to be the third party at the table. Over the next few months, I am going to use the PA Students’ Voice blog as a forum for new alternatives at reversing this trend. 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.