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Pa. college subsidies loss nearly double national average

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, May 19, 2016, 12:03 a.m.

Pennsylvania's public colleges and universities have lost state subsidies nearly twice as great as public colleges and universities across the nation, a study released Wednesday concluded.

Michael Mitchell, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said a national analysis shows per-student subsidies at public colleges and universities across the country declined by 17 percent on average since 2008. In Pennsylvania, subsidies remained down by 33 percent.

And that was with a 5 percent increase in subsidies released this year. That increase came after 2011-12 reductions in subsidies ranging from 18 percent to 22 percent at various schools and no increases in state support in the interim.

Although many states reduced subsidies to public universities when the recession hit, Mitchell said Pennsylvania's were among the most dramatic.

“Only five states have made deeper cuts to their two- and four-year institutions,” Mitchell said.

He said tuition and fees at Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned and four state-related universities have increased an average of $2,200 since 2008.

Meanwhile, debt levels among recent college graduates in Pennsylvania continued to climb. In 2014, the Institute for College Access and Success's Project on Student Debt pegged the average debt of new college graduates in Pennsylvania at $33,264, a figure eclipsed only in New Hampshire, where student debt levels averaged $33,410, and Delaware, where the average was $33,808.

Mark Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, cautioned that rising costs could affect college accessibility and have long-term consequences for Pennsylvania's economy if the workforce lacks adequate training.

“And finally, let me say there does not at present seem to be much hope of fixing these problems. Clearly, a long-term fix, a long-term commitment is needed in Pennsylvania, because the opportunities for our kids and communities really depends upon it,” Stier said.

Although Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed another 5 percent increase in subsidies for public colleges and universities for the coming year, officials said they've received mixed signals.

“It's anyone's guess at this point,” said Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education. Everyone has warned that the state is facing another tough budget year, he said.

Stier said a $1.9 billion structural state budget deficit in the coming year and a legislature that is hesitant to raise taxes in an election year could mean even more reductions in subsidies for public colleges and universities.

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

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