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Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (D.C.) released a grim report “Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years to Come” that highlighted the impact of drastic cuts to higher education nationwide following the 2008-9 recession. According to the report, these cuts will have a negative impact on our nation’s long-term recovery. 

One of the biggest attractors of businesses to a region is the quality and education of its workforce. Although tax rates, access to infrastructure, and low utility costs are important magnets for business investment, so is an educated workforce.

The other side of this economic development plan is that an educated workforce generates middle-class jobs that sustain an economic recovery. For instance, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, 62 percent of all jobs will require some form of college education, up from 28 percent in 1973.

Yet, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report shows that between 2008 and 2013, states cut funding to higher education by $2,353, or 28 percent, per student. Pennsylvania is no exception slashing spending by $2,082, or 29.9 percent, per student at all institutions and $1,632, 29.6 percent, at state system universities.

Pennsylvania’s cuts have placed an increased financial burden on students and families and reduced access to an educated workforce.

Pennsylvania’s cuts have placed an increased financial burden on students and families and reduced access to an educated workforce. The CBPP states that average tuition in Pennsylvania rose $1,560, or 14.1 percent, per student since the recession; at PASSHE schools the numbers are $1,251, or 24 percent. The CBPP study reinforces the “State of the States” annual report (a collective annual study out of Harvard, Penn and AEF) from last year that said, “The budgets of higher education institutions have been cut in recent years and, as a result, students have seen their tuition skyrocket to make up for the loss of funds” and “If the state cannot find a way to support its higher education students — even while making budget cuts — the long-term consequences for the state and its citizens could be negative.” 

Pennsylvania is no exception to this trend. For instance, average tuition and fees at State System universities now take up 17 percent of the median family income, and the Commonwealth is second nationally in per student debt upon graduation. This not only restricts the access to higher education needed to create tomorrow’s workers, it reduces cash in the current economy as debt-burdened graduates have less disposable income to purchases homes or cars.

These cuts also impact the quality of education for those who can afford to attend. For instance, PASSHE has eliminated or frozen 130 academic programs and over nine hundred positions have not been filled. The result has been a reduction in course offerings, increases in class sizes and student-to-faculty ratios, and less access to permanent faculty. These are just a few of the recent budget-induced changes that stagnate the human capital needed to sustain an economic recovery.

The effects of this lack of investment can be seen in Pennsylvania’s numbers: unemployment is above the 7.7 percent national average and private sector job growth now ranks 44th in the country.

The CBPP report recommends that “states should strive to expand college access and increase college graduation rates to help build a strong middle class and develop the skilled workforce needed to compete in today’s global economy.“ Like the CBPP report outlines, Pennsylvania must get back to investing in developing the workforce of the 21st century by investing in a quality, affordable higher education system. It’s economic development 101.