Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Corbett's plan for SSHE funding raises questions

by SAM KUSIC on March 10, 2011 3:00 AM

Aside from eliciting a few select words from Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education officials, Gov. Tom Corbett's budget address on Tuesday did one other thing -- suggest that maybe a discussion on how Pennsylvania funds its public universities is in order.

While speaking about higher education during his address, Corbett told the General Assembly this: "This fiscal crisis is a time to rethink state spending on higher education. Despite state subsidies over the past decades, tuition has continued to increase. If the intent was to keep tuition rates down, it failed. We need to find a new model.

"When it comes to higher education we should do the same thing that we do in basic education: the dollars should follow the student. It's their money."

Although it's not clear what he meant in the last sentence -- his office did not return repeated calls seeking clarification -- he seems to be suggesting some sort of a program in which tax dollars are given directly to college students instead of to universities. So as the argument presumably would go, universities would have to compete among themselves for students, which would keep tuition in check, if not drive it down, and ensure a certain level of educational quality.

However, were he proposing such a program for next year, one would expect to see an increase in funding for the state's Higher Education Assistance Fund, the pool from which need-based grants are given.

But that, too, is in line for a funding cut of about $27 million. And no mention of a program like what Corbett was suggesting could be found in the budget.

State legislators and university officials said they, as well, aren't sure what Corbett was getting after. Among them is House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, who said he and others will be asking for clarification.

But Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said it's a familiar line, one that tends to come up about every five years or so, especially when a fiscally minded state executive takes office.

Hurley said Corbett is essentially talking about a school voucher program for higher education. Hurley said no such program exists anywhere in the country, and for a reason. The programs are based on an assumption that universities operate independent of competitive forces, Hurley said.

They do not, he said, adding that universities already are in a robust marketplace.

"Students are consumers," he said, "and they make their decisions based on a lot of criteria."

Hurley also said vouchers ignore that a lot of students are placebound, so that the only university available to them is the one they are close to.

But based on how he heard it, Hurley said it sounded to him that Corbett was making an observation, not a policy proposal.

State system spokesman Kenn Marshall also said Corbett's suggestion sounds familiar. He said there has been a long-running argument that instead giving an appropriation to the state system and the four state-related universities, all of the money should be put in a pile and given to students.

"There have been those, mostly from private colleges and universities, who have proposed putting all of the money for higher education into (the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency)," he said.

But Marshall said that considering the cuts to student aid, Corbett's comment doesn't seem to follow the line.

All that said, the merits of a voucher program, if that is indeed what Corbett is thinking about, will be a debate for another day. State system officials are more immediately concerned with the 50 percent reduction Corbett is proposing to make to the system's annual appropriation.

Should the proposal pass as is, the system would have $232.6 million less to work with next year. To cover the difference, and not factoring in past cuts that already had been made, it would have to add about $1,946 to the annual tuition bills for its 119,513 students.

Hurley, whose organization has been keeping track of higher education cuts throughout the country, said the cuts Corbett is proposing are unprecedented, perhaps even the largest ever in the history public higher education.

"It's that steep," he said.

At IUP, Interim President Dr. David Werner spoke with his peers and the chancellor late Wednesday afternoon to discuss their next steps, one of which will be to try to argue down the cuts. They will at least find the area's legislative delegation willing to hear them out. Reps. Dave Reed, Jeff Pyle and Smith as well as state Sen. Don White said that while they agree with cost-cutting, they're not fully sold on the degree to which Corbett is proposing to cut high education funding.

Werner also issued a statement to the university, saying that the state system will do its best to overcome the budget trouble.

"I assure you that the leadership in Harrisburg and at IUP is concerned about the dramatic impact this budget would have on the university community," Werner wrote. "While it is important to note that this budget has not been passed, the leadership at every level of the system is committed to our students, and our first priority is to do everything possible to avoid disruptions in their education." 

Before the budget was presented, IUP was projecting a $10 million deficit on a 4 percent tuition increase and a 10 percent reduction in the appropriation.

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