Higher Education

Pennsylvania’s public four-year colleges currently confront a funding and enrollment crisis, with three of the most distressed Universities in northern and western Pennsylvania regions that lack community colleges. This crisis presents Pennsylvania, and its state legislators: do they want to continue the policies of the past three decades, which have massively underfunded post-secondary education, particularly in rural Pennsylvania? Or do they want to use the crisis of the State System as a wake-up call – a reason to address the state’s post-secondary education deficit, and a vital step to avoiding a downward spiral for many of Pennsylvania’s rural areas? This brief argues that lawmakers should take the latter course. 

The 14 four-year universities within Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education have been a pivotal engine of upward mobility for working families in Pennsylvania for decades. Today, the role of these schools in making the American Dream a reality for a hundred thousand Pennsylvanians each generation is threatened. Deep cuts in state funding coupled with living expenses on campus that have risen faster than tuition are threatening to put State System schools beyond the financial reach of many moderate-income families. 

As a group, the 14 schools that make up Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education (hereafter the State System) are among Pennsylvania’s great working-class colleges. Forty-one percent of State System students from 1999 to 2004 (far enough back that we can analyze how these students fare economically as adults in their thirties) came from families with incomes (pre-tax income at the household level) in the bottom 60% of households, those earning less than $73,500 a year (in 2015 dollars). By comparison, just 18% of the students from Pennsylvania’s 10 most elite private colleges during this period came from bottom 60% families. 

HARRISBURG - The PA Budget and Policy Center and the Keystone Research Center will hold a Facebook Live event for press and other interested parties to release a briefing paper that highlights the extent to which colleges in Pennsylvania facilitate economic mobility for working and middle class families.  The Facebook Live event will be on Monday, April 24 at 4:00 PM.

In his budget address, Governor Wolf observed that Pennsylvania faces a choice of two paths. Taking one path would require us to deal with the reality of our structural deficit and raise revenues to close it. It would enable government to continue to meet its responsibilities to educate our children, serve those who need our help, protect the environment and encourage economic growth. Taking the other path would require us to accept devastating cuts to education and health and human services.

The ideas in this document were compiled by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center based on our own work and that of our partner, the Keystone Research Center, and that of advocates on many issues. The names of our partners are in our letter to the Governor and the members of the General Assembly.

Budget numbers are always difficult to understand, not least because those with different perspectives can present the numbers in sharply different, but honest ways. In the context of the state’s still-unfinished 2105-16 budget, this brief presents a series of careful “apples-to-apples” comparisons of the three budgets in play in Harrisburg last year: Governor Wolf’s budget proposal, the Republican budget and the bi-partisan budget agreed to by Governor Wolf and the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in the General Assembly.

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