At Students’ Expense: Rising Costs Threaten Pennsylvania Public Universities’ Role in Upward Mobility


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. 

This briefing paper presents the facts on the costs of attending State System schools over time, on the state policy decisions that drive cost trends, and on the impact of costs on enrollment, especially of children from working families. These facts do not present a pretty picture. 

Our main findings:

  • Pennsylvania woefully underfunds higher education, ranking 47th out of 50 states for funding per capita from the state, with funding levels per capita one third to one fifth of the levels in several other energy-rich states.
  • From an already inadequate starting point, funding for all Pennsylvania higher education and the State System were cut deeply in and after the Great Recession.
    • Even Gov. Wolf’s proposed 2% increase for 2017-18 will leave inflation-adjusted funding for the State System more than 25% below the 2007-08 level and a third below its 2000-01 level. 
    • As a share of the state’s economy (measured by Gross State Product), funding for the State System today is only 42% of its 1983-84 level. This is an astounding and short-sighted reduction in a global knowledge-based economy in which post-secondary education is critical to both individual opportunity and state economic growth.
  • As state funding has plunged, tuition has increased, forcing families and students to pick up the slack. Tuition and fees now account for nearly three quarters (73%) of educational costs at State System schools compared to half that level (37%) in 1983-84.
  • Total costs adjusted for inflation have risen faster for on-campus students because of large increases in the cost of room and board. 
    • Room and board have increased by 76% (a hike of $4,567 in 2016 dollars) since 2000 compared to 51% ($3,351) for tuition and fees.
    • Total costs have risen by almost $10,000 since 2000, from about $15,000 to about $25,000 per year.
    • Total costs have gone from one fifth of median family income to over one third (35%).
  • As costs have risen, they have begun to impact enrollment in two ways.
    • At schools that cater the most to students from working families (with incomes in the bottom 60% of the household income distribution), total enrollment has plunged. Cheyney University is the most dramatic example: enrollment has dropped an eye-popping 57% from its 2006 peak.
    • At other State System schools, total enrollment has held steady or even grown, but the share of students from working families has fallen.
    • Both these trends speak to a simple point: the total cost of State System schools is growing beyond what families of moderate means can afford, especially if they don’t want their children to go deeply into debt at the start of their career.
  • Recent enrollment trends among working families validate the warnings of a consultant (Maguire) to the State System in 2011 that further increases in total costs of a few thousand dollars could sharply reduce the share of admitted students who end up enrolling in State System schools.

As a subsequent brief will detail, demographic trends since 2010 have also played a major part in driving down enrollment at State System schools, especially at campuses in western and rural Pennsylvania where the number of high-school graduates has fallen sharply. 

The bottom line of this brief: state policy choices, exacerbated by institutional decisions to cater to a perceived market demand (from more affluent families) for nicer on-campus living, have begun to choke off access to State System schools for students from less affluent families. Increased state funding and a refocusing of State System schools on their historic mission of providing affordable access to four-year college for all families are needed if Pennsylvanians want public higher education to continue to promote intergenerational social mobility as opposed to intergenerational social stratification.

For those readers with interest in a specific university, this report presents funding, cost, and enrollment information for each State System campus as well as for all 14 schools as a group.