Since he became Chancellor almost three years ago, Dr. Cavanaugh has crossed the state (if not the nation), talking about “how our institutions need to change in the 21st century.” The Board of Governor’s latest articulation of the change is their four points of transformation (something of a synonym for change).
Governor Corbett’s March 8 appropriations budget puts Chancellor Cavanaugh’s remarks in stark relief: if PASSHE has to live with the cuts proposed by the governor (approximately 15% of our operating budget), PASSHE will change. For a moment, let’s ponder the changes these cuts might effect.
We currently receive about 30% of our funding from the state appropriation, down from 67% in 1982 (when we became a system). If the governor’s 50% cut of state support would pass, we would be down to about 15% support for our budget. That happens to be almost exactly the percentage Penn St. received when we became a system. Essentially, WE would become a state-related, in support, if not in law.
The loss of $270 million in funding would mean higher tuition. Currently, we are the affordable option for Pennsylvania and the region: our tuition is $2,600 less than the average public institution in the Mid-Atlantic region. A 10% tuition increase won’t change that, but it will put us closer to the national average (we currently are $600 below it), and it will increase the debt burden of our students. That debt burden is already too high: the Chancellor cited it as a $23,000/student in recent testimony. And we all know students who say they won’t return if tuition goes higher; think of that lost opportunity and the expense of replacing students we’ve already invested in.
But it’s not just about money, it is, as the state-related example shows, changing our four-year institutions into something different. Act 188 that created the system in 1982 turned most of the system into universities, not just colleges, and at least since, if not before, the 14 have taken seriously their mission as comprehensive institutions.
Not only will the change in tuition eliminate opportunity for some students, or indebt them more, but will also change their educational opportunity. The retrenchment notices sent to the local chapters and to the state president last week cited not only financial considerations (this is contract language) but “program elimination.” The Governor’s cuts put the specter of many programs across the state disappearing. Our future students will not have the comprehensive choices our current students have or our past students have had for at least a long generation.
The Chancellor’s talk of change is not original to him or out of line with the conversation in higher ed these days. Faculty are often remonstrated as unwilling to change. As a spokesperson for faculty, let’s articulate it: why change? American higher education has been the envy and the model of the world since at least the end of WWII. People came, and still do, not because it was “job training,” but to be educated in the broad-based humanistic tradition that taught you to write, speak, think critically, and learn the basics of math, science, languages and the arts.
Even today, that’s still our fame. It’s not cheap, but it makes better citizens, better leaders, and, in the long run, a better country.
The Governor’s budget begs for change. And it’s not change for the better — it’s a change for less opportunity for working class students, both on the financial side and on the educational one.