Testimony of Dr. Kenneth M. Mash
President, Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF)
Before the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee on College Affordability in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
House Democratic Caucus Room, Rm. 418 Main Capitol, Harrisburg, PA
Monday, June 19
Chairman Sturla and members of the House Democratic Policy Committee, on behalf of the about 5,500 faculty and coaches represented by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing to discuss the pressing issues of access to and the affordability of public higher education in Pennsylvania.
A disturbing and inaccurate narrative has emerged in the recent public discourse concerning Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. It is a narrative that suggests our universities, like corporations, are “failing” because they are struggling with their finances. But our universities are not corporations. They are Pennsylvania’s publicly owned universities, and the State System’s founding statute, Act 188 of 1982, was unequivocal in laying out its mission. The law states: “The State System of Higher Education shall be part of the Commonwealth’s system of higher education. Its purpose shall be to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost.”
The spirit behind this charge was that our universities would be the engines of opportunity for the working-class people of the Commonwealth. Our universities were meant to be the vehicles that provide the opportunities for families to secure the American Dream. One of the reports recently released by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center demonstrates that our universities continue to do just that: Our universities do a much better job of lifting students whose family incomes were in the bottom 60 percent and moving them to the top 40 percent than do the Commonwealth’s elite universities.
Disturbingly, however, that same report indicates that our universities are now educating 15 percent fewer students from the bottom 60 percent than they were a few years ago. The cost to attend our universities has soared in recent years, with total costs rising from one-fifth of median family income to over one-third since 2000. Tuition and fees have risen substantially — and some of our universities have implemented per-credit tuition models that could potentially increase tuition by 25–50 percent. In real dollar terms, housing costs have increased 50 percent in the last few years.
In 2012, the State System commissioned a report from Maguire Associates to examine the elasticity of tuition at the state-owned universities; In other words, how would enrollment be impacted by increases in college costs? Among other things, the report found that an increase of more than $3,000 in total college costs would lead to drastic reductions in enrollment. Moreover, the effects would be felt the worst at six of the most cost-sensitive universities: Cheyney University, Mansfield University, Clarion University, Edinboro University, Lock Haven University, and California University. It is not a coincidence that, years later and after increases exceeding $3,000, five of those six universities are considering faculty layoffs and program cutbacks. They also happen to be those universities that cater the most to students from the bottom 60 percent.
When we discuss cost increases and enrollment drops, we are talking about more than numbers in a column. We are discussing the futures of our neighbors — and the fate of our Commonwealth. Should working-class families be forced to choose — if it is available — to have their children take on the type of massive debt that leads to paying the bank rather than buying homes, cars, and other things those of us who went to college during an earlier era took for granted?
Is it truly acceptable for an increasing number of students to be forced to make the awful decision between choosing food or books? There are now food pantries on several of our campuses. Do we really find it acceptable that an increasing number of high school graduates will just give up on a college education and believe they will be excluded from the American Dream?
Study after study continues to conclude that a college degree is still worth it — even if one only thinks about a college degree solely in terms of potential lifetime earnings. (We, of course, believe that the benefits of college education go vastly beyond income.) But the steepness of total college costs ranging from $23,000 to $25,000 per year certainly depends on where you are on the economic scale.
We appreciate Governor Wolf’s requested 2 percent funding increase for the State System and the legislature’s seeming assent. It is a good place to start; but that increase will only take funding to 1999 levels.
Pennsylvania is at a real crossroads: Do we want to join those states trying to seriously confront the issue of college costs and committing to the future a well-educated workforce provides brings, or do we wish to fall even farther down the list of states that have neglected public higher education? We don’t have much farther to fall: We’re already 47th out of 50 states in terms of per-student allocation support for our public colleges and universities.
A high-quality education at an affordable cost must amount to more than a few words on a piece of paper. When costs grow and opportunities at our universities close down, we put the Commonwealth at risk. Chairman Sturla and members of the committee, our universities are not failing. We are all failing a generation by depriving them of what has benefitted their predecessors.
On behalf of not only our faculty and coaches, but also our students and future generations of Pennsylvanians working to achieve the American Dream through a college education and those generations yet to come, we thank you for your attention to this crucial issue.