Earlier this week the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) and the Keystone Research Center (KRC) released the report, “Pennsylvania’s Great Working-Class Colleges.” The report highlights the success that the Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned university system, PASSHE, has had in moving students from lower income families into the top 40% of income earners. However, the report warns that Pennsylvania’s slow defunding of PASSHE coupled with stagnant wages has reduced access to higher education for working-class students – a trend that has accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008.
The report notes that between 2000 and 2014, state appropriations to PASSHE were cut by 32% while tuition increased by 48%. During the same period, Pennsylvania’s median household incomes were down by 4%. To add insult to injury, working-class students are now unable to pay for college in they ways they had for generations – by working. The report points out that “with the cost of college rising, but the minimum wage stuck in inflation-adjusted terms, students can no longer pay for as much of college” by working over the summer at low-wage jobs.
In 1983, the minimum wage in Pennsylvania equaled $737 per hour (in 2015 dollars). Working 12 weeks in the summer at 40 hours per week a minimum wage worker wold have made $3,640, slightly more than resident tuition at a college in the State System ($3,258). Fast forward to 2015, a college student earning the minimum wage over the summer would bring home $3,480, a figure less than half the $7,060 needed just to cover tuition that year.
Taken as a whole, “it is no surprise that inflation-adjusted median student debt for State System students climbed 22% from 2000-01 to 2013-14, reaching $26,191,” according to the report. And, it should be no surprise why we’ve seen emergence of the PA Student Power Network and their newly launched campaigns for a $15 minimum wage, affordable education, and a halt to university austerity policies.
Truth be told, Pennsylvania lawmakers began walking away from a commitment to funding PASSHE almost immediately after the system was founded in 1983. In 1983, state appropriations made up over 60% of the cost of attending a PASSHE university. Students and their families picked up the rest of the cost. Today, students and their families pay about 73% of the cost with the state appropriation falling to about 21%. That is, while there is no argument that the pace of defunding PASSHE sped up after the 2008 economic collapse – greased by Governer Corbett’s deep cuts to education beginning in 2011 – the fact remains that selling working-class Pennsylvanians short when it comes to access to affordable, quality higher education has been “good politics” – on both sides of the aisle – for quite some time.
What may be the most devastating and pressing issue in the report has to do with the recent announcement that five PASSHE universities are considering plans to retrench – that is, to layoff faculty and eliminate programs. Faculty at California, Cheyney, Clarion, Edinboro, and Mansfield learned at the beginning of the month they would be targeted for retrenchment, a move that could be devastating for these campuses after taking the brunt of the last round of PASSHE layoffs. The kicker here is that according to the PBPC/KRC report, these same universities have the greatest impact on improving the economic conditions of working-class students.
Of all the universities in Pennsylvania – state-owned, state-related, or private – these five universities have the greatest percentage of students from household with incomes in the bottom 60% of all income earners, according to the report: Cheyney (82%); Mansfield (53%); California (50%); Edinboro (48%); and, Clarion (48%).
The report draws on new data available as part of the Equality of Opportunity Project’s, Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility, calculating what they call the “mobility rate.” The mobility rate refers to “the share of all students who come from the bottom of 60% of families AND them move into the top 40% of earners (total pre-tax individual earnings) as adults in their thirties.” And wouldn’t you know it, those same five universities are at the front of the pack in the State System when it comes their mobility rate. Taken together, the five universities being targeted for retrenchment have a mobility rate of 24%. If PASSHE closed these five schools, the System’s mobility rate would drop to 18% – a 25% decline. Put another way, PASSHE is targeting universities that are the most beneficial to Pennsylvania’s working-class students.
The whole purpose of PASSHE was to ensure that all Pennsylvanians – especially working-class Pennsylvanians – would have affordable access to high quality public higher education. There was a time when our state lawmakers saw PASSHE as a prudent investment in the future of the Commonwealth. That time is but a distant memory to working-class Pennsylvanians today. The PBPC/KRC report proposes a plan that would raise at least $2 billion for public higher education and other priorities. However, such a rational and laudable proposal will only be possible if people mobilize to force a political change in this state. Policies are important. But if we care about getting them enacted, it’s necessary to build power.
On the plus side, we’ve seen an academic year marked by the first ever strike by the faculty union APSCUF. And, we’ve seen the birth of a potentially powerful student movement in the PA Student Power Network. We’ve seen the rise of Indivisible and Tuesdays with Toomey. And, we are just days away from what is expected to be a massive strike on May 1 by low wage workers in Pennsylvania and across the country. All of that is promising, especially if we continue to recognize that our power stems from solidarity and collective action.