Penn State and Pa.’s public colleges are among the nation’s costliest — and are surprisingly empty | Debt Valley

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“Let’s fill this sucker up,” Hawrylchak shouted to the bar crowd, gesturing to a metal donation bowl, as the college president launched Pete Seeger-style into a three-hour acoustic set that included Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run.”

After years of under-investment, Pennsylvania’s tax-supported networks of four-year colleges look like the nation’s Rust Belt of higher education systems — plagued by high costs, a dramatic drop in Pennsylvania students, and a rash of empty dorm rooms.

Enrollment at the 14 state-owned schools has fallen by 20 percent since 2010, with Mansfield University losing more than half of its students. Enrollment at 17 of Penn State’s 21 campuses around the state also fell, with a dozen plummeting at least 30 percent. The two networks lost a total of 28,000 students — a 14 percent decline. It would have been worse if Penn State hadn’t enrolled thousands more out-of-state students.

While another recession or more Pennsylvania high school graduates could ease this drought in the short term, the state’s demographics will make this historic drop hard to reverse, experts say. State-supported colleges face a bevy of new challenges, ranging from cheaper online schools to opportunistic colleges in nearby states that are luring away Pennsylvania students with much lower costs.

Students flock to schools elsewhere in part because Pennsylvania’s funding ranks among the nation’s lowest for its public colleges, namely Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University, along with Pennsylvania State University, its branches and 14 state-owned colleges like Lock Haven.

“I just knew they were the cheapest options for our state,” said Gianna Ricci, 19, a cellular biology major at Lock Haven who graduated tenth in her high school class with a 3.7 grade point average. Lock Haven is considered among the most affordable of state-supported colleges here, but federal data show that the University of Iowa and Purdue, both Big Ten schools, were more affordable for in-state students.

The University of Pittsburgh and Temple University — which are not part of the Big Ten but also receive state funding — are also more expensive than the large Big Ten public colleges for in-state students, federal data show.

“There is no strategy” at the moment to fix it, warned Kathleen M. Shaw, a former director of post-secondary education in the Rendell administration. “There is no vision for the role that higher education should play in the well-being of this state.”

Closing universities would deliver a catastrophic blow to their communities. But some reckoning is needed, experts say. At the very least, colleges may find themselves graded by metrics like graduation rates or student diversity to get more funding.

Pennsylvania state government was never considered a generous supporter of public colleges. But the problem worsened during Gov. Corbett’s term from 2011 to 2015 when Harrisburg slashed higher education funding to balance the budget. The 14 state system colleges are taxpayer supported. Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and Pittsburgh are partly funded by the state. The federal government considers both types of institutions “public.”

And because many students and co-signing relatives have to borrow, Pennsylvania college graduates rank second nationally for the highest debt with an average $37,061, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Only Connecticut college students graduate with more debt: $38,669.

But the debts keep growing. “We are placing an enormous burden on students,” said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a non-partisan research and advocacy group. “When state spending radically declines, tuitions have to make up the difference and the only way that students have made up the difference is by going into debt.”

Stier added that “we are, in some ways, becoming two states.” There’s one Pennsylvania with fewer degree-holders and slower economic growth, and the other Pennsylvania with more college graduates and faster growth.

Ricci, the Lock Haven sophomore, said she did all she could to cover college costs. “My summer going into here, I had two jobs,” Ricci said. “I lifeguarded and I worked [fulltime] at Dunkin Donuts. I worked my butt off and saved up my money.”

Derek DeSeau, 20, a second semester freshman, commutes one hour by bus each way from his family’s home in Williamsport to Lock Haven. He fell behind on his bill last semester and couldn’t enroll until he paid off his spring semester bill — only after taking $1,000 from the retention fund.

Mansfield, located on Pennsylvania’s northern tier in the fracking lands, lost half of its students and this fall enrolled 1,683 students. The university had a modest gain this fall and believes it has turned the corner. But it also plans to raze three older dorms over the next year or two.

Seven miles west of the Pennsylvania state line sits Youngstown State University. Aware of Pennsylvania’s high-cost schools, Youngstown State offers a 37 percent discount on its out-of-state tuition, amounting to a savings of $5,640, to 18 western Pennsylvania counties, in addition to several counties in New York and West Virginia.

This year, YSU’s Affordable Tuition Advantage program enrolled 1,233 students or about 10 percent of its students, spokesman Ron Cole said. “It never seemed fair that students seven miles down the road had to pay large out-of-state tuition surcharges,” Cole added.

In western Pennsylvania, Penn State’s branches face enrollment challenges at Shenango, Greater Allegheny and Fayette — all in the geography targeted by Youngstown State — down more than 40 percent since 2010.

“The University has put in place a series of actions focused on reaching new and larger pools of students in Pennsylvania and beyond, while continuing to provide transformational experiences to help boost student success, retention and graduation,” Penn State president Eric Barron said.

Penn State says its branch campuses are financially sound. It also is recruiting more actively in other states and overseas, making it easier to transfer to Penn State and offering more financial help to students.

State Sen. Patrick M. Browne, R-Lehigh County, is the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. A certified public accountant and Temple law school graduate, Browne now co-chairs the bipartisan commission looking into the politically fraught state of Pennsylvania’s troubled higher education system.

Higher funding will likely be achieved only through a consensus among Democrats and Republicans, he said. Holding institutions more accountable could help. The state could tie funding, or higher rates of funding, to higher graduation rates, student diversity, or whether students obtain good jobs after graduation.

On Oct. 23, the commission held its first hearing in Harrisburg. State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Pittsburgh, who has a law degree, told the 40 people gathered that the issue was personal for her because she had $130,000 in student debt. Another speaker noted how other states, among them Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, have adopted “outcomes-based funding,” tying funding to performance.

“It’s not in our interest to destroy a community,” said State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-West Chester, a commission member and the minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, during the hearing. State-owned West Chester University and state-related Lincoln University are in Dinniman’s district, while state-owned Cheyney is just outside it.

“It’s left to politics and lobbying and the like and that does not result in rational and informed decision-making,” said David Tandberg, a former top official in the state Department of Education and a vice president for policy research at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Instead, “the best lobbyist wins.”

This content was originally published here.

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