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April 3, 2014

Chancellor recalls

highs, lows of higher ed

amex Nordenberg

The value of higher education and the difficulties it faces today were the focal points of Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s March 24 American Experience lecture.

Cosponsored by the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy and the University Honors College, Nordenberg’s lecture, “Higher Education in 21st Century America: The Promise and the Pain,” focused on the United States’ movement away from its commitment to higher education. While federal and state support of higher education once were key factors in the country’s success, Nordenberg said recent government priorities have put that support in jeopardy.

The chancellor recalled past commitments by the federal government to invest in the education of its people and drew upon examples from the World War II era. The National Resources Planning Board recommended the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill) to help veterans adjust to post-war life by offering federal assistance with a focus on education, he noted. From 1940-50 the number of degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities doubled.

Nordenberg’s second example was one from the 1950s, when the National Defense Education Act created the National Defense Student Loan Program, driven by fears during the Cold War era. The act had its roots in the fact that “significant investments in education not only would be beneficial to the individual recipients of that support, but were critical investments in our national security,” Nordenberg said.

He said that soon Pennsylvania also began to show its commitment to higher education. In the 1960s, the commonwealth created the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, then established the system of community colleges. It also transformed Pitt and Temple from private to public state-related universities.

But the state’s commitment to higher education seems to have diminished in recent years. The Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education published a report in 2012 saying that the state’s higher education funding had declined more than 20 percent in nominal dollars (absolute dollars unadjusted for inflation) from its peak in 2008-09. Nordenberg noted that a lack of funding impacts universities’ affordability for in-state families and hurts the institutions’ ability to operate at a quality level.

In another example of legislation that shows a contrast with the 1960s, Nordenberg noted that three years ago, the governor’s proposed budget would have cut Pitt’s base appropriation by 50 percent and totally wiped out the support for academic medicine.

“That would have been a major step toward the end of public higher education in Pennsylvania as we know it,” Nordenberg said.

Those proposed cuts were adjusted and instead Pitt’s general appropriation was cut 19 percent, academic medical support was slashed 50 percent and capital projects support was reduced by 50 percent, Nordenberg noted. Pitt suffered total cuts in state support of $67 million that year. Since then, state funding has been flat and the same is proposed for the coming year. With adjustments for inflation, Pitt now receives lower levels of state support than at any point since it became a state-related university, he said.

“A year of historically deep and disproportionate cuts followed by two years of flat funding have taken Pitt back to levels of state support received in 1995, again in nominal dollars unadjusted in any way for inflation,” Nordenberg said.

With an improving economy, a recent report shows that 40 states have increased support for higher education over the last fiscal year. However, Pennsylvania has not, and ranks 47th in terms of investments in higher education measured on a per capita basis, he said.

Addressing problems on a federal level, Nordenberg quoted Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings as saying, “‘For seven decades, federally funded university research has produced innovations that have driven the economy, dramatically improved health and enhanced national security … but as we cut and then cut some more, and as our competitors overseas increase their investments in research and education, we create an innovation deficit that threatens America’s global leadership.’”

The chancellor said that despite insufficient funding, institutions of higher education still need to deal with present-day issues by reforming themselves. “In the end though, the priority set in Washington and in Harrisburg will largely chart the course to be followed by our country, by the commonwealth and by the communities in which we live,” he said.

Growing personal debt is another problem the nation is facing due to lack of public support for higher education, the chancellor said.  Not only does this affect the country now, but Nordenberg said it will impact the next generation. “The society to be occupied by our children and grandchildren will be less equipped to contend with the challenges of the world in which they will live if higher education has moved beyond the means of many,” he said.

Nordenberg also cited a 2012 National Research Council report, “Research Universities and the Future of America.” It begins: “America is driven by innovation. Advances in ideas, products and processes that create new industries and jobs contribute to the nation’s health and security and support a high standard of living. In the past half century, innovation itself has been increasingly driven by educated people and knowledge they produce.”

Levels of new knowledge have risen via research universities such as Pitt, according to the report, but those institutions now face challenges that include unstable revenue streams, out-of-date policies and increased competition from foreign universities.

Nordenberg said research universities are a “major national asset, perhaps even its most potent one.” He used Pittsburgh as an example of the effect that research universities can have on a local economy. Now considered a model of 21st century economic transformation, Pittsburgh’s economy reached a low point just over 30 years ago when regional unemployment was more than 18 percent. According to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the credit for Pittsburgh’s transformation is due in part to the foundation that higher education institutions created previously as a result of both a public- and private-sector investment.

Looking back to the American pioneers and the founders of American higher learning, Nordenberg noted their emphasis on education. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, Nordenberg said, “‘An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.’”

The chancellor added, “Hopefully in the years ahead, succeeding generations of Americans and Pennsylvanians will have the opportunity to look back and applaud this society’s recommitment to education and research.”

—Alex Oltmanns