Very Selective Priorities in Higher Education Funding in Pennsylvania

Between 2008 and 2014, state support for higher education has decreased 30.7% in Pennsylvania, the 11th highest decrease among the states. The decrease has amounted to $2,206 per full-time-equivalent student. In 2014, while 42 of the 50 states have increased allocations for higher education, Pennsylvania has been one of eight states in which state funding has continued to decrease. Not surprisingly, between 2008 and 2014, tuition has increased 16.6% in the state, or $1,799 per student.

As the Republican governor and legislature have rather relentlessly cut funding and the public colleges and universities have struggled to keep their budgets balanced, the state’s unusual and somewhat haphazardly developed “system” of colleges and universities has attracted attention. Specifically, as the state’s pool of high school graduates enters what will be an extended period of decline, many observers, both inside and outside of higher education, have pointed to the resources being devoted to a seemingly unnecessary competition among institutions in the various regions of the state.

In Pennsylvania, the three largest public institutions are Penn State University, Temple University, and the University of Pittsburgh—which seem nicely separated in the central, sot=utheastern, and western parts of the state. Scattered throughout the state are the 14 former teachers colleges, now known as the commonwealth universities, or the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). These institutions include the following universities (moving clockwise from the north-central part of the state: Lock Haven, Mansfield, Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Kutztown, Cheyney, West Chester, Millersville, Shippensburg, California, Indiana, Slippery Rock, Edinboro, and Clarion. Four of these universities—Indiana, West Chester, Kutztown, and Bloomsburg—have enrollments of 10,000-15,000. Three—Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Cheyney—have enrollments of less than 6,000.

A map showing the three largest universities and the 14 PASSHE universities would suggest a fairly even geographical distribution of the institutions, with all regions of the state, and not just the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas, being adequately served.

But the three largest universities also have regional campuses: Temple has just a single regional campus, but Pittsburgh has four campuses, and Penn State has 22, ranging from some that are clearly “feeders” to the main campus in State College and others that have become almost stand-alone institutions, offering a range of baccalaureate degrees comparable to those offered at the PASSHE institutions, many of which have “satellite” campuses, which do not quite have the status of regional campuses.

Beyond all of these regional campuses, there are 15 public community colleges located across the state.

So, even without considering the 82 private colleges and universities located in the state, it is clear that the state “system” makes it inevitable that institutions will be competing against each other for “local” and “regional” students, even if they can attract some students nationally and internationally.

In this context, it might be very surprising that the state should provide funding to establish yet another community college. According to a recent article written by Andrew Conte for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review [], critics of the proposed college “say nearby schools could fill that need. More than three dozen higher education schools operate in and around the area, including Edinboro University, three branch campuses of Pitt and Penn State universities, a branch campus of Clarion University and a branch of New York’s Jamestown Community College.”

But the allocation of state funding to the establishment of this new institution, during a period of extended cuts in funding for higher education, is less surprising when one realizes that the new college will be located in the district of one of the Republican leaders in the state senate, Joseph Scarnati. Moreover, near the end of his article, Conte notes that an earlier effort to establish a college in the region was an unmitigated failure: “the Northwest Pennsylvania Technical Institute, started in 1992 and grew to reach across 14 counties of Northwestern Pennsylvania. It closed in 2001, owing the state about $16 million, according to the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office.”

Lastly, Conte closes his article with a fairly lengthy delineation of the various people with connections to Scarnati who have been profiting in various ways from the planning and development of the new college. The out-of-hand dismissal of accusations that the whole deal seems to involve many obvious and potential conflicts of interest seems to be summed up in this defense: “’ “Lobbyists are the eyes and ears of their clients,’ McDowell said. “There’s nothing wrong with lobbying. It should not be a dirty word.’”


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