Pennsylvania Higher Education at a Crossroads: To Boost Opportunity and Growth, Pennsylvania Needs to Invest in Higher Education



By Eugene Henninger-Voss and Stephen Herzenberg

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. 

Our previous two briefs on higher education documented (1) the importance of public universities to upward mobility in Pennsylvania; and (2) the inadequacy of state funding and the impact of this on tuition and enrollment at State System schools. This brief examines demographic trends and the geography of educational attainment and college access in Pennsylvania.

Demographic trends and State System enrollment. In the United States, the number of high school graduates fell after 2009 once most of the children of baby boomers – the “echo boom” – left high school. Pennsylvania experienced a sharper fall in the number of high-school graduates than the nation, especially in western and rural parts of the state. Across all 14 campuses of the State System, the percent fall in enrollment since 2009 roughly equals the percent drop in the number of high school students in all of Pennsylvania. Within the 14 schools of the State System, significant variation exists: 

  • At four north-central and western Pennsylvania Universities (California, Clarion, Edinboro, and Mansfield) where faculty were notified this spring that their contracts might end after the 2017-18 school year, enrollment dropped (in percent) by a bit more than twice the number of high-school graduates in nearby counties and other geographical areas served by these schools. 
  • At nine schools where faculty received no notices – many of them in faster growing southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania which faced small drops in the number of high-school students – enrollment (in percent) dropped by half the fall in the number of high school graduates in areas served by these schools.
  • At historically black Cheney University, enrollment plunged by more than half.

The five schools at which enrollment dropped more (in percent) than the number of high school graduates all cater heavily to moderate- and low-income students. This provides more evidence that rising costs have priced these universities beyond an increasing number of working families. Since the areas or communities that these five schools serve do not have many (in some cases, any) alternative affordable nearby colleges, not going to State System school may mean not going to college at all. 

The geography of educational attainment and college access in Pennsylvania. Reduced college attendance because of lack of access to affordable higher education threatens to drive Pennsylvania’s already low educational attainment even lower, especially in rural geographical areas where it is lowest.

  • Pennsylvania ranks 40th for the share of adults 25-64 with more than a high-school degree. 
  • While this share exceeds two thirds (67%) in four counties (Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery), In over half of Pennsylvania counties (35), this share is lower than any of the 50 states (i.e., lower than West Virginia’s 48.1%).
  • Under the status quo, low educational attainment is likely to persist because low shares of Pennsylvania high-school students consider college (as measured by the share of high-school graduates who fill out forms required to receive federal financial aid). The contrast between Pennsylvania’s northern tier and the similarly rural southern tier of New York is striking:  counties in New York typically having a 5-25 percentage point higher share of students filling out financial aid forms (Figure 9).

Where do we go from here? How should the state respond to what the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) calls the “twin challenges” faced by Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education – state financial support and demographic decline? NCHEMS itself does not recommend closing or downsizing any of the State System schools. We agree. Significant parts of rural Pennsylvania are already a “higher education desert” according to a recent academic analysis. Reducing access to State System schools would increase the size of this desert, further compromising opportunity for individuals and undercutting rural economies. 

Pennsylvania has some breathing space to chart a difference course because demographic decline slows somewhat over the next decade. In this breathing space, Pennsylvania must increase its investment in the State System as part of a more integrated public post-secondary education system. This should include statewide access to community colleges, more integration of post-secondary education and work-based learning that deliver both college credit and industry-recognized credentials (such as apprenticeships), and more affordable access to State System schools. Part of the money for a more integrated public higher education system could come from federal financial assistance: Pennsylvania draws down $202 million less in its “share” of federal Pell grants for attending college (based on Pennsylvania’s share of the U.S. young adults most likely to attend college).

Our next brief will present more details on a policy proposal for investing in Pennsylvania post-secondary education. This brief, and the previous two, establish the need for such a policy proposal.