You can’t destroy the American Dream without building it up first. At the dawn of the 1960s, amid a Camelot of post-World War II can-do optimism, Pennsylvania injected academic steroids into old teachers’ colleges in out-of-the-way places like Kutztown or splayed boxy, utilitarian dorms across Appalachian foothills to create an engine meant to propel the Keystone State’s young people into a bold new economy.

These 14 institutions — from West Chester University and the historically Black Cheyney University on the western edge of Philadelphia’s suburbs to Edinboro University some five hours northwest — would become the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE. With low tuition underwritten by taxpayers — who’d reap the benefits of an educated workforce — Pennsylvania would teach the daughters and sons of coal miners, factory workers and farmers to become guidance counselors, or accountants, or business executives.

What could be more simple — or politically popular — than the mission statement of Kutztown University when it upgraded in 1960 from the Keystone State Normal School, to become “a center for learning for the best possible education of the youth of Pennsylvania...” It all seemed impossible to screw up, yet somehow Pennsylvania’s politicians have spent the last couple of generations killing the American Dream of higher education. And they’ve done it with a brutal frog-in-boiling-water technique, slowing heating up the pain, year after year, until suddenly the future of our young people is totally cooked.

Jamie Martin, the current president of the faculty union (the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, or APSCUF) at the 14 universities told me this week about how she was able to graduate from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s with no student debt . “You could get on with your life,” she recalled. But today, “we’re seeing students delaying things” — getting married, having kids, buying a house — “because of the size of their loan repayment.”

If you take a step back and look at the big picture of how this happened, you don’t need a masters degree from Slippery Rock to do the math. Starting around the 1980s — the moment of “the Reagan revolution when government became the enemy in a hunt for ever-lower taxes — Harrisburg joined much of the rest of America in deciding higher education was no longer a “public good” but should become a financial stress test for an increasingly tapped-out middle class.

Forty years ago, about 75% of the cost for a young Pennsylvanian to attend public college in-state was shared by taxpayers through the state budget. Today, those numbers are reversed so that students and their families pay nearly 75% of the cost through tuition, and that burden has accelerated since the Great Recession. In the decade immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, state government aid per student plunged by 33.8%, and many of the families asked to make up the difference had been ravaged by the breakdown of Pennsylvania’s industrial economy.

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Like so many other places in the “law-and-order” era, lawmakers in Harrisburg had paid more attention to building prisons for young people than making college affordable. And yet because the state’s budget cuts for higher education happened gradually, over a period of decades, there was never a 72-point newspaper headline announcing this end of the American Dream, or even much of a public debate. Until, of course, the moment that the 14 universities of PASSHE — who’ve, in the spirit of Economics 101, have watched enrollment sharply decline as tuition rose — stood at the edge of the abyss.

“This system is at a tipping point,” the PASSHE chancellor, Daniel Greenstein, told a charged legislative hearing on the system’s future last week. “It is no longer sustainable in the current model. Tweaks to that model will not serve our students.” Greenstein is backing a complicated merger involving six campuses where enrollment has plunged by as much as half in some cases, with the goal of saving millions in administrative dollars.

But that sounds like a tweak, albeit a bigger than usual one. As reported by my Inquirer colleague Susan Snyder, Republicans at the hearing attacked the universities’ administration for “bleeding dollars” and for losing students — but I have to wonder how these GOP lawmakers managed to speak out while holding the bloody daggers behind their backs. The decline in enrollment at the PASSHE campus started at the dawn of 2010s, or about the same time that the then-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and a GOP-controlled legislature implemented a one-year, 18% cut in state higher-ed support from which the system has never fully recovered. As Democratic state Rep. Peter Schweyer of Lehigh County said at last week’s hearing: “I’ve never seen government cheering the demise of a government entity like I have today.”

Across the nation, taxpayer support for the no-longer-a-public-good of higher education has plummeted, and while Democrats ought to be screaming louder about this, the bulk of the blame belongs with Republican lawmakers with both an anti-tax vendetta and an ideological hatred for colleges they see as fortresses of liberal indoctrination. There were nine states that cut higher education funding by more than 30 percent in the decade after the 2008 crash — almost all of them in the Sunbelt and/or heavily Republican. The one shameful outlier on that list is Pennsylvania — a state with a rich history of higher education that dates back to Benjamin Franklin and the founding of the University of Pennsylvania.

Yet a 2019 survey found that more than half of all Americans mistakenly believed that taxpayer support for public universities has increased or at least stayed the same in recent years. Said DeWayne Sheaffer, an official with the National Education Association: “Nobody is talking about this.”

Most older Pennsylvania voters — include state college alums from the 1960s or ‘70s whose tuition checks were in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands — also have no idea what life is like for many of today’s public university students. Recently — for a book I’m writing about how America’s college problems have caused our political divides — I visited the Kutztown campus and its busy food pantry, where scores of students come by weekly to stretch their strapped budgets with bags of free taco shells or popcorn. And I’ve met several alum from schools like Kutztown or the state-supported Temple with more than $100,000 in outstanding debt. Advocates call the plight of modern students “#RealCollege” — but it never should have come to this.

Gov. Wolf is aware of the problems — including that about 60% of job openings require a post-secondary degree now held by just 47% of Pennsylvanians. But his proposal — dropped just before the pandemic hit in 2020 — for a $200-million-a-year scholarship fund for low- and middle-income students who agree to stay in the state after graduation, funded by horse-track revenues, is described even by its sponsors as dead on arrival. The reality is unless either a) Washington can fund the ambitious, long-shot proposals for free public college floated by the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren or b) we can can engineer brain-and-heart transplants for the current crop of Pennsylvania legislators, with the goal of convincing them to restore state funding to 1970s’ levels, then the death spiral will accelerate.

The crazy part is that most of the 14 universities on the brink are located in or near communities that have suffered industrial job losses, that are represented by Republican lawmakers who’ve supported these budget cuts, and that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. The best hope for the children of the voters who elected these reps would be a thriving university system to keep them in Pennsylvania, as part of a salvaged middle class. These short-sighted pols would rather curse at the clouds, and watch the American Dream become a nightmare.

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