Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

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

Lack of financial support from Pa. helps make its state-supported schools among the nation’s priciest and helps explain why student debt here is also near the top nationally.

Robert Pignatello, president of Lock Haven University, performs Pete Seeger-like ditties to help raise money for his students. Pennsylvania has one of the worst-funded higher education systems in the nation, data show.
Robert Pignatello, president of Lock Haven University, performs Pete Seeger-like ditties to help raise money for his students. Pennsylvania has one of the worst-funded higher education systems in the nation, data show.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

LOCK HAVEN, Pa. — Rob Pignatello, president of Lock Haven University, stepped up to the microphone at a local brew pub one recent Saturday and described how hard it was for many of his 3,160 students to cover college tuition, living expenses, and fees.

“So I sling a guitar on my back and play around the area” to raise money for students, he said.

Beside him stood Broken Axe Brew House owner Nicholas Hawrylchak, Lock Haven Class of 2007, sporting a long beard.

“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.”

Pignatello’s student “retention fund” gigs around here are small but symbolic, raising $1,300 that Saturday and $50,000 in the last year.

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.

That lack of support helps make Pennsylvania’s among the nation’s priciest state-supported schools, and it helps explain why student debt here is also near the top nationally.

Many students and parents don’t realize when they shop for schools that Pennsylvania’s public colleges — or those that are either fully taxpayer supported or helped with taxpayer funds — are much costlier than many in other states.

“I just knew they were the cheapest options for our state,” said Gianna Ricci, 19, a cellular-biology major at Lock Haven who graduated 10th 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.

Penn State is the most expensive college in the Big Ten Conference for in-state students, apart from the private Northwestern University, federal data show.

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.

Big tuition leads to big debts. Among the startling statistics supplied to lawmakers earlier this year: Loan debt at state-owned Kutztown University, between Allentown and Reading, soared 59 percent to $40,084 per student between 2011 and 2017.

At state-owned Mansfield, near the New York state line, student debt rose 58 percent to $36,624, while enrollment plummeted.

This year, U.S. News & World Report rated Pennsylvania’s higher-education system as 50th in the nation, citing its high costs, student debt, and a low-ranked community college system.

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

Pennsylvania legislators acknowledge that the state college system needs an overhaul. They have created a bipartisan legislative commission that will spend the next year taking testimony on possible solutions.

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.

It all starts with the funding hole

Pennsylvania taxpayer funding for higher education peaked in 2000 at an inflation-adjusted $9,433 per student, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association data.

That plunged 52 percent to $4,552 per student in 2018. Pennsylvania now ranks near the bottom in most measures of support for higher education — 47th, for example, in the percent of tax revenues allocated to higher education.

Pennsylvania state government was never considered a generous supporter of public colleges. But the problem worsened during Gov. Tom 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.”

State lawmakers, in effect, have offloaded more costs onto college students and families. Student payments now make up more than halfof the per-student revenue at publicly supported Pennsylvania colleges, double the national average.

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.

Schools like Kutztown are attacking the problem. It boosted institutional scholarship aid by 65 percent between the 2016-17 and the 2018-19 academic years to $4.3 million.

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 nonpartisan 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.

Enrollment slide

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 [full time] at Dunkin’ Donuts. I worked my butt off and saved up my money.”

But as a freshman, she still had to borrow from the federal government while taking out a private loan and tapping Lock Haven’s retention fund, supported in part by college president Pignatello’s gigs.

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.

“It’s difficult if you don’t have financial help from home,” he said. “If you live on campus, it’s pretty much doubling your semester cost. I really wasn’t expecting to come back this semester, because I was so uncertain of my financials.”

While these students struggle to attend a taxpayer-supported public college, other students have simply walked away from those institutions.

At the historically black and state-owned Cheyney University, enrollment plummeted 61 percent between 2010 and now. There were 618 students there this fall. Last week, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education affirmed Cheyney’s academic accreditation, ending years of uncertainty about whether the beleaguered school would be forced to close.

Mansfield, 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.

Edinboro University, near Erie, shed 46 percent of its students, with enrollment falling to 4,646 this fall from 8,642 in 2010.

An exception: West Chester University in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, with a 22 percent gain to 17,691 this fall from 14,490 in the fall of 2010.

“We just can’t keep pulling the tuition lever as hard,” Daniel Greenstein, the chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, told the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year.

Families making $110,000 or less have been abandoning state-owned colleges, Greenstein testified, because they have been priced out of them.

Out of reach

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, spokesperson 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.

On the other side of Pennsylvania, Penn State’s Hazleton campus shed 52 percent of its students over the last decade. The main campus in State College, and the campuses in Abington, Lehigh, and Harrisburg, all escaped declines.

Recent data show that the pricey main campus — which has been attracting more out-of-state students — is out of reach for many students who aren’t from wealthy families.

Penn State was the least affordable for middle-class students among the nation’s big flagship public colleges, said Mamie Voight, vice president for policy research at the nonpartisan Institute of Higher Education Policy.

Penn State attributes shifting demographics — fewer college-bound Pennsylvania high school graduates — and online education as threats to its branch campuses. But it also says that those outposts remain an important part of the institution.

“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.

Lawmaker dilemma

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 cochairs the bipartisan commission looking into the politically fraught state of Pennsylvania’s 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.

But such a model introduces other questions. A concern among lawmakers is that closing a state-owned college, typically a big employer, would shatter a local economy.

“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.

Browne, the state senator, agreed that Pennsylvania "really has not had a higher-education strategy” and that the commission “needs to decide what we want to get out of it.”

The legislature’s long-standing method has been to distribute funding increases equally on a revenue, or base-plus, model, lawmakers and experts say. With such a model, the legislature simply tacks on a percentage increase to the prior year’s funding level.

“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.”