In 2018, The Simple Dollar ranked Pennsylvania fourth in its list of the worst states for college affordability.This ranking was based on statistics such as the average student loan debt of $39,302 students were left in after leaving four-year and two-year colleges and average in-state tuition. For 2018 and 2019, Pennsylvania was ranked 50th in higher education by the U.S. News and World Report. Across reports and rankings, PA is consistently ranked among the lowest for college
affordability, higher education funding and student loan debt. In an interview with Ken Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, he said a lot of it comes down to funding.
The high costs of higher education, he said, are a “direct result of the Commonwealth’s failure to fund [higher education].” Pennsylvania’s higher education funding has gone down significantly within the past ten years especially, with a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reporting a $2,451 decrease in PA state spending per student between 2009 and 2018, and average tuition at a four-year public Pennsylvania college increased by $3,006 in the same time frame. Both of these numbers are adjusted for inflation.
According to the Inquirer, the State System had asked for a 2% increase in yearly appropriation, which Wolf did not give. Instead, he allocated $13 million for a redesign. In a perfect world, Mash said, “our legislature, our policy makers, [would] start to adequately fund the state system” as well as community colleges and state-related schools. “The commonwealth has an obligation to make it affordable,” he said.
The affordability of college also affects admission rates, which affects the overall population. This is something Gov. Wolf aims to change with his scholarship proposal. One stipulation of the tuition assistance is that the student must stay in Pennsylvania for as many years as they receive the scholarship. If not, the money is converted into a loan the student must pay off. This is in hopes that it will increase the younger population of Pennsylvania, which is quickly declining. However, Mash said the decline of high school graduates is “undeniable” in the commonwealth, but PASSHE rates are falling faster than the rate of decline of high school graduates. This is, he believes, directly related to the cost of going to college. Since its peak in 2010, there has been a 20% enrollment loss across the State System. In 2019 alone, enrollment dropped 2.6%.
West Chester University is one of only a few PASSHE schools where enrollment increased in 2019, but only by less than one percent, according to the Post-Gazette. WCU is also PASSHE’s largest school with over 17,000 students. Other universities in the PASSHE system, such as Cheyney, increased 32%, which brought their total population up to 618. The reason that WCU is different from other PASSHE schools, said Mash, is the city itself. “Location, location, location,” Mash said. West Chester’s population is growing, so the university benefits from that. In contrast, many PASSHE schools are located in places where the population is declining, thus leading to a decrease in enrollment.
While funding for the PA higher education system decreases, student loans increases. According to Forbes, Pennsylvania ranks 49th in student loan debt per capita. For families with modest means, Mash said, “you’re looking at Mt. Everest.” The amount of debt students are in once they leave college will also hurt the overall economy, said Mash. “When students are carrying so much student debt, we’re hurting the overall economy here in Pennsylvania.” He goes on, “Students that graduate aren’t able to buy a house, afford a mortgage, buy a car.” Furthermore, the drop in enrollment will “impact the future of the Commonwealth because we’re going to need people who are educated,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to attract good employers […] if we don’t have enough educated people.”
Mash called the state of public higher education in Pennsylvania a “dire situation.” But, he believes that it can be turned around with students themselves. “We need students to step up,” he said. He called on students to make their voices heard by going to rallies held at the capital and contacting their legislators. As far as the Nellie Bly scholarship, Mash is thankful that the government is taking this issue on, and students need to “make their voices heard to try and make sure that this actually does happen [and] that it’s not just a proposal.”
Alison Roller is a fourth-year student majoring in English and minoring in journalism. AR875447@wcupa.edu