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State university officials push for affordable education

Debra Erdley
| Monday, June 19, 2017, 6:30 p.m.

With the countdown to Pennsylvania's June 30 budget deadline ticking, faculty and administration officials with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Monday made their case for boosting college affordability to the state House Democratic Policy Committee.

Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union that represents faculty members and coaches at the 14 state-owned universities, warned that the state could face serious long-term economic consequences for failing to support its public universities.

He said recent surveys of state support for public universities pegged Pennsylvania 47th out of 50 in terms of support per student. Resulting increases in tuition, fees and room and board have made it harder than ever for working-class families to afford college, he said.

“Pennsylvania is truly at a crossroads,” Mash said.

He said the university system— it includes California, Clarion, Indiana, Edinboro and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania — faces serious financial challenges despite a proposed 2 percent increase in state subsidies next year.

“It's a good place to start, but it keeps us at 1999 funding levels,” Mash said.

He said five universities including Cal U, Clarion, Edinboro, Cheyney and Mansfield are weighing layoffs and program eliminations, based on current funding projections.

Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, told the House panel the state has dramatically reduced support for higher education as a percentage of the spending over the last 30 years.

“If we look at the state appropriation versus the (state) GDP, it is 42 percent of the level it was in 1983-94,” Price said. His group recommends raising new funds for higher education through a severance tax on natural gas, and a raise in personal income taxes on capital gains and investment income.

Lawmakers, however, have been reluctant to discuss new sources of revenue for the schools.

So the State System Board of Governors, the appointed board charged with system oversight, is exploring various options as it awaits a report from an independent consultant that will outline recommendations for future operations.

The board last spring hired the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems at a cost for $396,000 to review everything from the location and number of campuses necessary for optimal operations to programs offered. That report is due July 31.

State system spokesman Kenn Marshall said a preliminary report from the Colorado-based education think tank is expected by July 13.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer.She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib

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