It presents a sobering statistic. Pennsylvania ranks 40th out of 50 states in the percentage of adults with more than a high school diploma. It is in the company of Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia.
Treasurer Joe Torsella (D) recently noted that Pennsylvanians, on average, have $35,000 of debt upon graduation — second-worst in the nation. He also reported that state funding for full-time students has dropped 35 percent over the past five years.
According to U.S. News and World Report — which assessed tuition costs, fees, and debt upon graduation — the Commonwealth is dead last, 50th, for higher education.
“No variable is more strongly connected to economic vitality than the level of education folks have,” said Stephen Herzenberg, with the Keystone Research Center.
As lawmakers still grapple with budget winners and losers, Herzenberg urges them to do a better job prioritizing higher education, especially the 14 state-owned universities.
“When you price the most affordable public, four-year colleges beyond the typical working families, you are compromising their future and you’re comprising our future,” Herzenberg said.
He added that in the 1980s, Pennsylvania picked up two-thirds of a student’s tuition and fees at state schools. Today, he said that’s down to 25 percent. Families are forced to shoulder more of the financial burden or their children are forced to drop out, he said.
State Rep. Stephen Bloom (R-Cumberland) doesn’t buy it.
“[State schools’] administrative overhead is growing, not the fact that [the legislature is] being stingier or tougher on them,” Bloom said. “They need to get their act together.”
Bloom insists higher education is a priority, noting that he used to teach at Messiah College and has put three kids through college. He said the problem facing state schools has more to do with the schools and less to do with the state.
“Administrators and the faculty itself continue to get substantial and generous raises and benefits, and the students are paying the price for that,” Bloom said.
He also noted the poor fiscal health of the Commonwealth.
“I think it would be wrong to say to the taxpayers, ‘We’re gonna raise your taxes so we can give these institutions more,’ when they’re already getting very substantial support,” he said.
Herzenberg shakes his head.
His report shows that the education gap – and the fallout from it – is most severe in rural Pennsylvania. He thinks rural lawmakers, especially, should be leading the charge to tax more in order to spend more on higher education instead of holding the line on taxes. Constituents in their districts need it the most, Herzenberg insists.
“Cutting taxes in general and cutting taxes to rich people isn’t going to make that person in a warehouse in Cumberland County become part of the middle class,” he said.