By now everyone is aware of the tight budget news at Pitt and other Pennsylvania state universities (see Oct. 9 University Times). The commonwealth faces a budget shortfall this year, so Pitt’s current appropriation may be cut by 4.25 percent (a loss of $7.25 million).
Since this funding cut is likely to occur, Pitt’s administration is asking each responsibility center receiving state funds to cut its budget by its proportionate share. It’s up to each center to decide how to make the cuts; most are expected to accomplish them by delaying hires.
This supposedly is a one-time cut, but given our state’s history and the bleak economic outlook facing the nation, future years also may be affected. It is a situation that all of us need to be concerned about, because it will have a negative impact on us all.
While the rationale for making funding cuts due to recession is easy to understand, the problem in Pennsylvania is far more serious than just that: State funding for higher education has steadily eroded for years, and has been especially tight the last seven years.
Pitt’s current state appropriation ($189.3 million) is only 6.7 percent higher than that for FY 2001 — and will be only 2.6 percent higher than in FY 2001 if the threatened $7.25 million cut is imposed. Meanwhile, inflation over the same eight-year period has been about 30 percent, so state funding clearly has lagged far behind even minimal maintenance levels.
The deficiencies in state funding have been made up by a combination of increasing tuition and holding down expenses, including faculty and staff salaries. As a result, Pennsylvania now has some of the highest-tuition public and state-related universities in the nation. This seems not to concern most state legislators or Pennsylvania citizens, presumably because they believe that students are the sole beneficiaries of a college education, so the expense should be borne primarily by them, not the state.
In response to criticism that the cost of attending college in Pennsylvania is too high, our state legislature created the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Association [PHEAA], which provides grants and loans to low-income state residents. However, PHEAA has become a bloated wasteful bureaucratic agency that overpays its executives and hosts unnecessary luxury retreats.
PHEAA also gives grants to students attending private colleges, as well as public ones, with the award amount increasing as tuition increases. This means that considerable public tax dollars are going to support high-tuition private colleges in Pennsylvania, which is counterproductive to the goal of making a college education affordable to as many low-income students as possible. Those same tax dollars would benefit many more students if used instead to keep tuition as low as possible at the state’s public and state-related colleges and universities.
In my opinion the state should stop funding PHEAA and instead redirect that money straight to our public and state-related colleges and universities so they can lower tuition or provide more need-based scholarships to their students. PHEAA could continue to make student loans as a private agency.
Achieving this kind of reform — or even just getting higher appropriations for public and state-related universities — will not be easy. There are many special interest groups that do not want to see any changes in PHEAA or the entrenched way Harrisburg does business. It’s going to require a change in attitude toward higher education by legislators and citizens all across the state.
I am confident that Pitt’s administration will do everything it can to get state legislators and the governor to understand that Pennsylvania’s public and state-related universities need more state funding in order to keep tuition increases low and carry out their mission effectively. We can all help by letting our legislators know it is unreasonable for the state to provide only a 1.4 percent increase for Pitt, when inflation is 4.1 percent and the state budget rises by 4.2 percent, which is what happened last year.
Getting a fair share of state tax dollars in the future may well be the only way we can keep tuition down and provide pay raises to faculty and staff that meet or exceed the rate of inflation. The University Senate commonwealth relations committee is working on ways to involve Pitt faculty, staff and students in lobbying for additional state appropriations. I urge all members of the University community to participate in these efforts. Contact Cindy Brendel (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the Senate Office for more information.
John J. Baker is president of the University Senate.