For students at the University of Pittsburgh and other state-supported schools, Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget is bad enough: It cuts millions from higher education from an already lean state appropriation. But to add insult to injury, Corbett used his Feb. 7 budget address to argue he was doing students a favor.
Overall, Corbett's budget would cut state funding to higher ed by half. Penn State University could lose $64 million in state funding; the University of Pittsburgh is slated for a $40 million haircut. When combined with the cuts made last year, Penn State would be losing more than half of its state subsidy; Pitt would lose 44 percent. State schools like Indiana University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, would see a 20 percent reduction in state funding — a cut of $82.5 million.
But Corbett's speech barely mentioned those cuts. Instead, it concentrated on the fiscal habits of the colleges themselves.
"We need to open the discussion about how best to finance higher education in this state," Corbett argued, following up with a quote from President Obama's recent State of Union address: "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."
Corbett announced the creation of a "panel on post-secondary education." Made up of college administrators mixed with some GOP standbys, it would report in November on college finances. "[W]e need to talk about this honestly and without rancor," Corbett urged.
Avoiding rancor may not be easy. State Rep. Dan Frankel, whose East End district includes Pitt, has already called cuts to Pitt "devastating." Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg, meanwhile, denounced the cuts in a 3,200-word missive that accused Corbett of "target[ing] among the most fruitful of the Commonwealth's investments." As for the panel examining college costs, Nordenberg wrote, "[i]t certainly would have been far better if [it] ... had been at work before ... such deep and disproportionate cuts."
"This is the classic case of closing the barn door once the horse gets out," agrees Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank. Obama, she points out, was warning colleges about future scrutiny ... not seeking to justify cuts he already intended to make. "Same message, two different intentions," she says.
Conversely, the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, has claimed that "Colleges hike tuition no matter what governors do." When Corbett proposed cuts last year, it has noted, Penn State's then-president, Graham Spanier, responded by declaring "Abraham Lincoln is weeping today" ... after which the school raised tuition a paltry 4.9 percent. According to Foundation policy analyst Nate Benefield, that was Penn State's lowest tuition hike in a decade, when Penn State hikes averaged roughly 8.4 percent.
That may be an outlier: A study by the College Board found that since the early 1980s, when state aid has dropped by more than 5 percent, tuition at public universities has increased by between 5 and 10 percent. Increased state aid, meanwhile, was followed by more moderate tuition hikes.
"Some individual colleges are in the process of empire-building, it's true," says Mark Kantrowitz, a Cranberry-based expert on college financing. "But as a whole, the primary driver of tuition inflation is a decline in state support. When state governments cut ... higher education, it shifts the burden from taxpayers to students."
Ward predicts some of Corbett's cuts will be scaled back. The state Senate has already begun hearings, she says, and legislators "seem to get the notion of higher education being a core component of the state's economy."
For his part, Nordenberg is putting an optimistic face on Corbett's education panel, to which he's been appointed. Corbett, Nordenberg wrote, had "personally committed to me that there will be no attempt to advance pre-conceived policy results." Then again, Nordenberg may not be able to advance his agenda, either. After all, when Corbett set up a series of "transition teams" before taking office, Nordenberg co-chaired the team looking at education. Yet he couldn't avert tens of millions in cuts. And counting.