A renaissance requires investment, and Pennsylvania falls far short in support of public higher education

Pennsylvania ranks 47th among the 50 states in terms of its support for public higher education

A Post-Gazette town meeting last week focused on Pittsburgh’s “New Renaissance.” Our regional progress has attracted national and international recognition. In fact, just days before I had returned from Asia where I was invited to speak about the role of “eds and meds” in the inspiring re-birth of our economy.

When the PG town meeting discussion shifted from reasons for celebration to causes for concern, my co-panelists shared assessments that might seem surprising. Jared Cohon, the president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University, bluntly stated that the single biggest threat to Pittsburgh’s ongoing progress was the state’s significant retreat from its commitment to adequately fund public higher education. Esther Barazzone, the president of Chatham University, agreed. Jim Rohr, PNC’s recently retired CEO, reminded the audience that a key to our success in attracting and retaining 21st-century businesses was an abundance of today’s most important natural resource — the ideas and well-educated students produced by the region’s universities.

The element of surprise came from the fact that it was leaders of private universities — more typically considered to be rivals for such funding — who identified sharp reductions in state support for public higher education as the top threat to future regional prosperity. That is one indication of how far Pennsylvania has fallen.

Though there has been a longer-term erosion of state support for public higher education in Pennsylvania, the funding battles of the past four fiscal years have been especially brutal. The proposal advanced in the spring of 2011 would have reduced general appropriations to the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Temple, Pennsylvania’s public research universities, by 50 percent and completely eliminated support for their academic medical programs. In the eyes of many, this was the first big step toward eliminating public higher education in Pennsylvania.

Though the Legislature provided some relief from the proposed cuts, Pitt’s initial support was cut by 21 percent. That was followed by a further mid-year reduction, as well as a 50 percent reduction in capital-projects support, resulting in a total cut to our state support approaching $70 million in that one year.

A new wave of deep cuts was proposed for the following year, but the Legislature again intervened, this time holding public university funding flat, which now has been the pattern for three consecutive years. This has taken Pitt’s state support back to the level of the mid-1990s. If you take inflation into account, state support now is at its lowest level since Pitt became a public university in the mid-1960s.

Just as important is how Pennsylvania fares when compared with competitor states. Earlier this year, a report released by the State Higher Education Executive Officers revealed that Pennsylvania ranks 47th among the 50 states in terms of its support for public higher education. An even more recent report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities provides telling data on trends in state funding. Its most fundamental finding is that, contrary to the experience in Pennsylvania, “state funding continues its post-recession turnaround.” It reports that “investment in higher education provided by state governments witnessed an impressive 5.7 percent increase for fiscal year 2014,” which ended July 1. The data also confirm that there is a direct and demonstrable link between levels of state support and the size of tuition increases.

With respect to the fiscal year that has just begun, a survey conducted by the association revealed that “states collectively provided a 3.6 percent year-over-year increase in state operating support for public four-year colleges and universities for fiscal 2015” and “of the 49 states that have passed a budget, 43 increased funding for the new fiscal year” meaning that Pennsylvania will fall even further behind.

What may be particularly telling is the fact that each of the three states ranking below Pennsylvania in terms of higher education appropriations per $1,000 in personal income has provided for substantial increases in support for the fiscal year that has just begun: New Hampshire — 14.5 percent, Colorado — 11 percent and Massachusetts — 3.6 percent, while Pennsylvania’s already low funding has remained flat.

If these trends continue, Pittsburgh soon will have the ironic distinction of being America’s best-educated city while sitting in the state that is least supportive of public higher education. However, as my town hall co-panelists suggested, should that occur, neither that circumstance nor Pittsburgh’s “new renaissance” likely would last for long. Instead, the state’s failure to invest adequately in public higher education, which has been a principal driver of this region’s economic transformation, inevitably will take its toll, and both the economic strength and social vitality of our home region will decline, as will the acclaim that has been showered on Pittsburgh as an inspiring model of 21st-century economic transformation.

We cannot afford to let that happen.

Mark A. Nordenberg is chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh.

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