During orientation week, The Daily Pennsylvanian ran an excellent article with advice for Penn first-year students. Sophomore Asher Zemmel wrote, “Part of going to a top university doesn’t just mean strong academics, but it also means top resources available to you in terms of counseling and support.”
Zemmel hit on one of the great disparities in U.S. higher education. Highly selective long-established universities like Penn have resources far in excess of what state universities and regional publics can even imagine. Penn can offer its students a range of fully-staffed support services, from mental health to career services.
Public universities, however, are at the mercy of legislative appropriations. No matter how hard they try, regional publics in particular simply cannot come close to the services that students strolling down Locust Walk can take for granted. While state flagships can draw to some extent on endowment income and philanthropy, the operating budgets of regional state universities depend mainly on state appropriations and tuition.
Right now Pennsylvania Senate Republicans are calling for a two-year tuition freeze at the 10 PASSHE (PA State System of Higher Education) universities. But as Senator Judith Schwank (D-Berks County) rightly pushes back, it is never a good idea for a state legislature to set tuition.
“The legislature has delegated the authority of the system of course to the chancellor and to the board of governors in making those decisions like tuition rates as well as what majors are offered,” said Sen. Schwank. “Are we going to begin to direct the system as to how it’s managed? I don’t think that’s a good trajectory for us.”
The senator goes on to point out that the Republican call for a two-year tuition freeze is not accompanied by a commitment to increased appropriations. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana County), ignoring principle and institutional necessity, grandstands in a way sure to appeal to voters.
“Why on earth would we not want to vote to make sure that the students that attend our state-owned universities are not saddled with a tuition increase next year?” Pittman said. “All families who attend our State System schools deserve assurance that tuition will not go up in the 2024-25 school year.”
No one can argue against PA families having some predictability about tuition costs. If the legislature guaranteed multi-year appropriations, I am confident that PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein would reflect any such appropriations pledge in his tuition recommendations.
What we see instead in Pennsylvania — and across the nation — is state legislatures creating financial rollercoasters for public universities. Researcher Jennifer Delaney points out that “state support is too often caught in boom or bust cycles. That volatility destabilizes the sector.”
The biggest competitor to state schools
Having devoted 24 years of my career to leading regional public universities in Arizona, Alaska, and Illinois, I have personal experience with boom or bust (mainly bust!). I became president of Governors State University (GSU) in 2007, right in time for the Great Recession. Then from 2015-2017, a benighted Illinois Republican governor (Bruce Rauner, who now lives in Florida) catapulted Illinois into a budget impasse that meant no appropriations whatsoever for two years. The finale of my GSU career required management of a global pandemic, so I’ve earned my rollercoaster insights.
My GSU colleagues and I were resolutely determined to do whatever we could to continue the university’s tradition of innovation and equity. It wasn’t easy. In my book, Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation, you can read about GSU’s establishment of model partnerships with 17 Chicago-area community colleges, the development of a state-of-the-art four-year program, the availability of a summer bridge experience, and many other innovations.
But everyday, my colleagues and I were frustrated by the limitations on the services we could offer in mental health, trauma recovery, financial aid, career services, tutoring, and the many essentials available, as they should be, in the Ivy League and other “top” universities.
The irony is that regional publics like GSU and the PASSHE universities enroll students with so much greater need than those admitted to highly selective and rich institutions. Even if Penn and, as they say in the Ivies, “the institutions to which they compare themselves” did everything I have recommended to attract more racially diverse, first-generation, low-income students, they would not come close to the number of students deserving special services at PASSHE universities.
There’s another fundamental cost — always underfunded at regional publics — of marketing, communication, and public relations. At GSU, we could never spend more than about 2 percent of our operating budget on reaching out to students and explaining the benefits of public higher education, including potential transfers from community colleges. In fact, we were held to account and criticized for “non-academic” expenditures.
And yet at GSU — and I would guess at most PASSHE universities — our biggest competitor was nowhere, meaning that qualified students did not have the requisite information to know how to apply for Pell grants, to explore community college partnerships, to navigate the red-tape of university application and, as a consequence, went nowhere. Contrast that with the highly paid college consultants hired by affluent families to give their sons and daughters strategic assistance in applying to college. No doubt, PA and the nation as a whole should invest more in preparing, hiring, and compensating high school guidance counselors. But public universities would still have a major role in identifying and explaining pathways to a college degree.
What can be done
- Vote for state legislators who understand the needs of public universities and their value.
- Encourage rich universities like Penn to partner with PASSHE schools. As Penn considers creative PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes), it would be groundbreaking for my alma mater to provide support to Cheyney University, for example, to develop Cheyney’s outreach, bridge programs, financial aid counseling, etc.
- Reach out to state legislators to encourage them to increase funding to public universities and to keep hands off tuition decisions.
In short, Pennsylvania — and the nation as a whole — suffers from fundamental disparities in higher education, leading to a polarized society fraught with accusations of elitism. Remedying this problem is essential to the preservation of our democracy.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
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