Everyone at Pennsylvania's public colleges is asking the question, although they're terrified of the answer:

What happens if Gov. Corbett continues to slash funding for higher education?

A nearly 20 percent cut last year, and now a proposal for a reduction of up to 30 percent this year - keep it up, and all funding could quickly disappear.

"Everyone is worried," said Larry Catá Backer, an international-affairs professor at Pennsylvania State University and incoming president of the faculty senate. "It's very clear over the next several years it's going to go down, and anyone who doesn't plan for this is being unrealistic."

In an interview, Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department, was asked whether money for higher education would continue to dwindle or even potentially end.

"I don't want to take that leap just yet," he said. "It all depends on the economy and the revenues coming in to the state treasury. The governor just feels at this time we have to live within our means without asking taxpayers to pay more."

The cuts, however, ensure that some taxpayers - students and their families - will definitely pay more.

"What it means is higher tuition," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "Not enough states are really figuring out what we need, and then stepping back and figuring out how do we pay for it. What's the state's share? What's the student's share? It just seems to me that's really critical before cutting another 20 percent."

One state that's found at least a partial solution is Maryland.

In 2003, faced with rising costs and falling state aid, the University System of Maryland created what it called the "Effectiveness and Efficiency Initiative."

The system's goal was to pay less for what it needed and get more from what it had. Faculty teaching, advising, and office hours were raised 20 percent. Bulk purchasing and services such as energy were centralized.

All told, the Maryland system saved a total of $255 million. It kept tuition flat for four out of five years.

"These weren't cuts that impacted quality," said William "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the 12-campus system. "It was streamlining to make ourselves more efficient."

At the same time, the system also developed a plan tied to the state government's desire to produce more graduates in technology and science. That plan, together with cost savings, gained the university system enormous credibility with the governor and state legislators, he said.

As a result, "We became much more of a funding priority for the state," Kirwan said. Since 2008, the Maryland system has not lost state aid, he said.

Kirwan was one of 12 college leaders invited to the White House to talk about education with President Obama - who in subsequent speeches outlined a plan to force universities to restrain tuition or lose federal aid.

"We are putting colleges on notice - you can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year," the president said.

In Pennsylvania, the beginnings of a Maryland-style plan may exist in a new committee the governor announced at the same time he presented his budget. The panel is to study ways to make higher education accessible and affordable to students - and to taxpayers.

"It's really past time for us to take a look at how we can best fund higher education in the commonwealth," said Don Francis, a panel member who is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.

Sara St. Peter, the sole student on the 30-person board, said the endless increases in college costs must end.

"I'm going to be in debt for the rest of my existence," said the sophomore, who figures she will graduate from Allegheny College owing about $70,000. "There has to be some way to give people a good education without chopping their arms and legs off."

Since the recession began, more than 40 states have cut higher-education funding, and colleges have reacted by raising tuition and fees. At the University of Washington, for instance, those costs went up 20 percent last year.

Nationally, the cost of tuition and fees has nearly tripled in the last 30 years. Paying for college has become the typical family's second-largest investment, behind their mortgage, and the annual over-inflation tuition increases have them crying: "Stop!"

In Pennsylvania, particularly, families have a point. The Delta Cost Project found that at Pennsylvania public research colleges, student tuition accounted for 70 percent of the cost of education, compared with 52 percent nationally, and that similar disparities existed at other types of public schools.

"We all believe that there are ways to cut spending, cut the cost of higher education, but it has to be looked at from all ends," said Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Project in Washington. "Nobody wants to hurt the quality of higher education."

Under Corbett's plan, the 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, including West Chester University, would get funding cuts of 20 percent, to $330 million. That is on top of last year's 18 percent reduction, after which tuition jumped 7.5 percent.

Officials in the system wonder where the cuts will end, and how they can possibly save more money. In the last decade, their schools have carved $220 million from their budgets, and in the last two years, they reduced full-time employment by 357 jobs, officials said.

Three of the four state-related universities - Temple, Penn State, and the University of Pittsburgh - face deeper, 30 percent, cuts. Temple's subsidy would drop to $98 million, Penn State's to $163 million, and Pitt's to $95 million.

The fourth college, historically black Lincoln University, would have no reduction in its $11 million allocation.

Among states, Pennsylvania stands out for the size of its real and potential cuts, said Dan Hurley, director of policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Nationally, most states have been proposing to reduce higher-education budgets by 3 percent to 5 percent.

Continued large cuts in Pennsylvania will mean bigger class sizes and fewer course offerings - ultimately making state schools less attractive.

"Public and private education is a huge reputational asset to a state, not to mention economic asset," Hurley said. "A dilution of that quality could have a long-term impact."

Private universities face a 30 percent cut, to $17 million, and community colleges would be cut 3.8 percent - a blow to schools established to ensure that price is no barrier to education.

The law that created Pennsylvania's community college system in 1963 required schools to get one-third of their funding from the state and one-third from their sponsoring counties, with the last third paid by students.

"That has almost been flipped on its head," said Stephen Curtis, president of Community College of Philadelphia, where students provide 58 percent of funding.

The projected budget loss at CCP is $1 million. No one wants to raise tuition for students who are often the first in their families to see the inside of a college classroom.

"Unfortunately, right now," Curtis said, "that's the only revenue source we control."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or @JeffGammage on Twitter.