The Morrill of the story: Public universities in Pennsylvania must be supported
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In July, Pennsylvania will observe, with little fanfare, the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Land Grant College Act.
Introduced by Justin Smith Morrill, Republican senator from Vermont, and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, the legislation was designed to provide the "sons of toil" with a college education in the practical fields of agriculture, engineering, military science and the classical arts. The creation of public universities, Morrill argued, would facilitate economic prosperity and enhance American life.
Were Lincoln and Morrill alive today, they might marvel at how Pennsylvania's public universities have successfully fulfilled that mission. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Pennsylvania's public universities rank among the nation's best. Among all states, Pennsylvania ranks fourth in six-year graduation rates, second in student matriculation from 9th grade to college graduation, fourth in the number of degrees conferred and fifth in college retention rates.
In addition to student success, the positive impact of higher education on Pennsylvania's economy is also cause for celebration. According to Phillip Trostel, professor of economics at the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Economic Policy, a bachelor's degree holder generates, in current dollars, $471,000 more in income over the course of a lifetime than the average non-degree holder. This increase translates into a sizeable return on investment. For every dollar Pennsylvania invests in a student, the state recoups, in inflation-adjusted dollars, nearly six dollars in return.
While the financial advantages of public education are certainly impressive, the intangible benefits are perhaps most commendable. Aside from the obvious financial rewards, people who own college degrees tend to be good citizens. According to the College Board Advisory Center, university alumni live longer, vote more often and demand less from social services.
Well-educated people also possess an enlarged capacity for independent thought. The ability to think, to develop belief systems that heed the higher callings of justice and empathy, serve as bulwarks against corrupt institutions that enforce blind obedience and destroy lives.
With such public good clearly evident to anyone who cares to look, one wonders why Gov. Tom Corbett persists in viewing public education as a private entitlement rather than a public investment. In only two years the governor will have slashed more money from higher education than all previous Pennsylvania governors combined since the Morrill Act was ratified.
Although Gov. Corbett has not stated his agenda explicitly, one can surmise from his actions that he would greatly reduce public support for higher education and transfer the state's educational obligations to private or for-profit online schools.
Such a move would be a disaster for Pennsylvania. In the first place, for-profit online schools -- the kind Charles Zogby managed before he became Mr. Corbett's budget director -- have a dismal record of achievement. Despite the copious influx of venture capital and student financial aid, for-profit universities such as Capella, Phoenix and Walden have an aggregate graduation rate of only 22 percent -- an astounding 43 percentage points below the Pennsylvania public college average. The student loan default rate for these online students is a whopping 25 percent.
While Pennsylvania's private universities have an excellent track record, a different problem will ensue if the governor has his way. If the state were to close even a portion of Pennsylvania's public universities, the costs of private education, in a new seller's market, would increase substantially. The disparity in tuition costs is already alarming, with private college tuition fees averaging nearly $16,000 more per year than the public sector. For the sons and daughters of those who "toil" for a living, a private education is already well beyond reach.
Unfortunately, rewarding the privileged elite has been the dominant trend in politics over the last 30 years, and Gov. Corbett proves no exception to this rule. A careful examination of his budget reveals that this year's reduction in public higher education funding is less the result of fiscal necessity than a pronounced shift in ideological priorities.
It is no accident, for example, that the $250 million Mr. Corbett takes from higher education is equivalent to the projected loss in revenue from his elimination of the business asset tax. In other words, the governor's "lean" budget is nothing more than a clever sleight of hand. He has simply taken money from one pot and put it into another. As one constituency suffers less, the other suffers more. The end is little more than a zero sum game.
If the greatest economic advantages emerge from a synergy between public education and small business, a truly courageous budget would seek ways to increase public revenue to relieve the fiscal burdens on both. One obvious way to generate more revenue is to close the tax loopholes for Pennsylvania's largest corporations.
Chesapeake Energy, for example, the darling of Mr. Corbett's beloved natural gas industry, recently received $173 million in tax rebates on $8.3 billion in profit, for a cumulative effective tax rate of minus-2.1 percent. Other corporations such as Air Products, General Electric, Verizon and Comcast have similar dismal records in generating tax receipts over the last three years.
In addition to closing tax loopholes, legislators should also seek additional revenue streams. The creation of tuition reciprocation agreements, the solicitation of private sector sponsors who can advertise on university websites and an increase in funding to facilitate profitable research patents would help improve the university bottom line.
Even as we search for immediate solutions, it is important for the Legislature and the governor's newly appointed education panel to recognize that the Morrill Act, like the G.I. Bill, is one of the most proven pieces of legislation in the history of this country. Greater access to higher education is not a private entitlement but a public investment that provides the intellectual capital necessary to ensure Pennsylvania's fiscal health.
Above all, public education at all levels creates a moral citizenry whose members respect and value the contributions of all who dedicate themselves to the commonweal of this great state.
First Published February 16, 2012 12:00 am