Once again administrators for the 14 university PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) are advancing multiple tuition schemes that will result in increased costs to students and their families. The schemes are being encouraged by PASSHE Chancellor, Frank Brogan, as a way to “increase revenue” for PASSHE universities after 4 years of austerity policies favored by former governor, Tom Corbett.
However, like most of PASSHE’s schemes over the past several years — e.g. using off-balance-sheet financing schemes to fund luxury buildings and dorms; crying “budget crisis” as a means to change or eliminate academic programs; or, eliminating programs for at-risk students in order to divert funds to pet programs or beautification initiatives — these latest tuition schemes promise to come right back and bite PASSHE students in the behind.
One of Brogan’s first orders of business when he arrived in PA in 2013 was to encourage universities to consider charging different rates for different majors. The idea represented a change of course for the State System. Former PASSHE Chancellor, John Cavanaugh, expressed his reservations to such a move when he took on the big chair in 2008. Cavanaugh told the Patriot-News:
I don’t particularly like it because that gets into students who choose majors on the basis of what they can afford, and I don’t think we are in the business of putting people in that predicament. … And we want to encourage students to explore and take courses in lots of different areas.
Brogan justifies his embrace of different tuition rates for “high cost” majors arguing it will help “raise new revenue” to plug budget gaps at many PASSHE universities. But, let’s be blunt about it, Brogan was arguing for raising more money by charging students more – even while it hides those increases in “fees.”
Only Pay for the Credits You Take? Or, How to Jack Up Tuition on the Sly
PASSHE’s newest scheme is to charge tuition on a per-credit basis. The messaging on this is, once again, great for the PR folks: “students will only be charged for the credits they actually take.” Millersville University and Clarion University have already switched to a pay-per-credit system and Indiana University (IUP) and Bloomsburg University will be switching to a pay-per-credit system in fall 2015. Other PASSHE universities are actively considering moving to a pay-per-credit model, including Kutztown University which will be holding an open forum on the Per-Credit Tuition Model at 11:00 am on Thursday, March 5 (Boehm Auditorium).
I asked Bonnie Martin, Assistant Director, Communications/Media Relations at Bloomsburg University, why the university was moving to a pay-per-credit model and she offered a similar explanation to what we’ve already seen from PASSHE’s public relations folks. She said, “At its simplest level, the new per-credit tuition pricing pilot means students pay for the number of credits they are taking.” That messaging, as you would assume, plays well. It frames the issue as one of “fairness” – that is, you only pay for the credits that you take. Gotcha.
But what does this mean specifically for students? Martin laid out the impact as follows:
Previously, students enrolled in 12 to 18 credits paid the same flat rate for tuition $3,410 (Pennsylvania resident) or $8,525 (non-resident). Under the new per-credit pilot program, tuition for a Pennsylvania resident student taking 12 credits will be $104 lower than he or she would have paid under the flat rate and tuition for a student taking 15 credits will be $748 more than he or she would have paid under the flat rate. Undergraduate per-credit tuition for non-resident students will be set at two times the undergraduate Pennsylvania resident per-credit tuition rate and will result in a savings of $1,965 (12 credits) and $261 (15 credits).
So, you got that? As a student, you will save money if you drop down to 12 credit hours a semester. However, students taking 15 or 18 credit hours will be hit with the biggest tuition increase PASSHE has ever seen. While PASSHE has regularly increased tuition between 3 and 4 percent over the past several year, Bloomsburg students taking 15 credit hours will be hit with a nearly 18% increase in their tuition bill. Students taking 18 credit hours will see an over 20% increase.
The beauty of this scheme is that PASSHE universities moving to a pay-per-credit system get the huge public relations benefit of being able to say “we are bringing our tuition model in line with many higher education institutions across the country that have been charging per credit hour” instead of, “we are increasing tuition for the vast majority of our students by 18%.” That’s a neat trick, isn’t it? Students and parents then have to put in the extra work to figure out just how much more they will have to pay to attend a PASSHE university.
It’s All About the Money
If you peruse the FAQs on PASSHE university websites looking for their official rationale for moving to a pay-per-credit system, the first reason on the list is usually a version of
It brings [insert university name here] in line with many higher education institutions across the country that have been charging per credit hour. Additionally, this change unifies our tuition model, as graduate students are already being charged on a per-credit basis (for example, check out these statements by Bloomsburg and Millersville).
The only reason for moving to a pay-per-credit system is to raise a significant amount of “new revenue” by dramatically increasing student tuition. How much are we talking about?
Bloomsburg’s Bonnie Martin would only say ” the per-credit pricing structure is expected to improve the university’s bottom line.” But according to several faculty members who have attended meetings regarding the new tuition model, Bloomsburg is expected to plug its nearly $3 million budget hole almost immediately.
At Kutztown University – where they are considering jumping on the band wagon – Gerald Silberman, VP of Administration and Finance, told the University Senate on February 5, that moving to a pay-per-credit model and charging $294 per credit would increase the university’s revenue by $6 million next year alone.
Last month Bill Schackner from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that IUP’s administration expected the windfall to be even larger.
The pilot program, to be phased in over three years, is expected to yield $8.2 million in additional revenue once fully implemented.
The only good reason for PASSHE universities to move to this new tuition scheme is to avoid having a public debate about higher education funding, cost of tuition, and student debt while still getting the “new revenue” on the backs of students, plain and simple.
Of course the whole subtext here is the dramatic cuts to public higher education issued by former governor Corbett and the Republican controlled PA General Assembly over the past four years. And, let’s not forget, the long-term defunding of public higher education by PA State Legislators – of both political parties mind you – over the past three decades.
Republicans and Democrats alike have continued to ride the popularity of advocating for tax cuts while shifting more and more of the burden of the cost of education onto working families. Here’s the story in one simple chart:
While the “tax cut” mantra is good for politicians in the short run, the long-term effect of tax-cut mania has been to shift the financial burden of higher education onto the backs of students and their families. It’s true that Pennsylvania does not stand alone in this trend, but our state legislators are not innocent victims to some kind of natural disaster, either. Over the past 30 years, Pennsylvania state representatives have stood watch over and advocated for the privatization of one of Pennsylvania few remaining institutions designed to ensure working families have access to affordable, quality higher education.
PASSHE’s latest scheme to raise tuition through a pay-per-credit scheme will be one more blow to students and their families – all because Pennsylvania legislators are completely unwilling to advocate for a strong program to invest in higher education. Why? Well, because then you have to start talking about closing corporate giveaways like the Delaware Loophole and a proper taxation system that allows us to invest in our future.
But Pennsylvania has also lacked any sustained, organized effort to build a strong movement of students, parents, faculty and staff who demand more than the crumbs that fall from the table. We saw sparks of such a movement during Corbett’s budget cuts, but thus far those sparks have yet to catch. And, frankly, as much as Governor Wolf is a strong supporter of education, he still has to contend with a Republican controlled General Assembly with little appetite for restoring the cuts of the past four years – never mind those from the last 30 years.
In the meantime, PASSHE universities will pursue their schemes to bleed stones with the help of the old strategy of the carrot and the stick.
Kutztown’s VP of Administration and Finance Silberman held out the carrot: an influx of more than $6 million dollars a year if the university decides to join in the pay-per-credit tuition scheme. That’s a mighty juicy looking carrot for a university who has weathered eleven-plus years of being told that the university was in “financial crisis” (a lie, but the official story nonetheless). Just think, all you have to do to get your hands on that juicy carrot is to send your students into deeper debt. But, “what about the students?” It’s actually a question that the university administration claims to put front and center. What if faculty and staff refuse to support the administration’s scheme?
Silberman brought the stick: either Kutztown goes to pay-per-credit tuition or the university will return to cutting faculty and programs.
Or…we all stand up for an alternative.