Commonwealth cannot abandon commitment to State System of Higher Education

Commonwealth cannot abandon commitment to State System of Higher Education

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By Sen. Vincent J. Hughes

Last week, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the system made up of our 14 state-owned universities, had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Unfortunately, instead of working collaboratively to ensure that Pennsylvania students have access to high quality education, members of the committee insulted our system and its professors.

Our state system is a hallmark of this state, due in large part to the people who have devoted their lives to our universities. Students who attend any one of the state system schools enter the classroom knowing that they will be taught by full-time professors. Unlike many universities, graduate student assistants are not teaching classes at PASSHE. Additionally, over 90 percent of state system faculty members have terminal degrees in their fields and dedicate hours beyond what is spent in the classroom.  For every hour spent in front of students, professors spend an additional two to three hours preparing for class, grading papers, advising student organizations, doing service for their universities, and doing research in their fields. This drastically increases the value of a state-school education, but years of underfunding by the state are putting this quality education out of reach for students.

The State System of Higher Education was founded in 1983 with the Commonwealth contributing 75 percent of the cost. Thirty years later, the state’s contribution has fallen to under 25 percent. The situation has become particularly dire in the last few years. Under Governor Corbett, the System saw an 18 percent cut in state funding followed by three years of flat funding – a cut that took funding for the system back to 1986 levels. During the years of draconian cuts from Governor Corbett, PASSHE schools were instructed to keep tuition changes under the rate of inflation. While Governor Tom Wolf has attempted to increase funding for the State System, we still have not been able to fully restore necessary funds to our 14 state-owned universities.

Year after year, the state system is asked to do more for students with less money from the state and increasing pressure not to increase tuition. Students and their families have borne the brunt of this; class sizes have increased, programs have been eliminated, and faculty and staff positions have been cut. These tough decisions have decreased the value of a PASSHE education, even as the cost increases.

No school in the system has felt the pain of decreased funding as harshly as Cheyney University. Cheyney is one of the oldest schools in the system, and the oldest Historically Black College & University (HBCU) in the country. HBCUs have a rich history of providing students from traditionally underserved backgrounds with quality education, but have seen declining enrollment as other institutions have boosted their diversity recruitment. This is not a death knell for Cheyney, but it does make state funding even more paramount for the potentially thousands of students who will thrive at the university.

Like all schools in the system, Cheyney has been forced to cut its spending, but this is not a sustainable solution.   In order for Cheyney to continue to provide the rich experience that it has offered students since 1837, it must provide a robust education taught by top-notch faculty in modern facilities.  The commitment to this mission is crucial as the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, continues to monitor our treatment of Cheyney due to the sad history of discriminatory treatment of African-Americans in higher education in Pennsylvania.

Years of neglect have put all of our universities at a turning point. Some universities have proposed moving to fee-per-credit models that ultimately increase the cost of a four-year education for full-time students. Entire departments have been cut and professors have been laid off. These solutions do not benefit the System, its students or our state.

The System was chartered to provide an affordable, high-quality education for students of the Commonwealth. We are failing students in this mission. We are sacrificing quality as we continue to make cuts and push far too much of the cost onto students and their families. Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed increase of $45 million to the system will help, but it is not enough. We must fight for more and continue to reinvest.

Now is the time to return the State System to its original mission to provide high quality education at an affordable price. We can only achieve that goal with strong and reliable funding from the State.

Sen. Vincent J. Hughes is Democratic Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.