I HAVE a working theory about Gov. Corbett's apparent assault on higher education.

I think it's a politically adroit bait-and-switch.

I think it's a way for the conservative Republican to seem like some sort of new-wave Pennsylvania compassionate/populist by being all anti-intellectual in cutting aid to colleges and universities while, on paper at least, increasing funding for welfare programs.

Ain't gonna feed them ivory-tower types; gonna feed the needy.

I'll grant that this theory's born of abject cynicism regarding almost all things political, and an underlying belief that budgets are driven by efforts to placate political patrons (read: no tax on gas drillers; tax cuts/credits for business).

But, still.

In case you missed it, Corbett's budget plan, announced last week, calls for a 50 percent funding cut for the State System of Higher Education's 14 schools and the so-called state-relateds: Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln.

Doesn't 50 percent suggest an arbitrary, let's-just-toss-it-out-there approach?

The total slash is roughly $650 million.

The same budget proposal shows a line-item increase in welfare spending of $607 million.

See? Compassionate conservative.

These two numbers - even more than a proposed $1 billion cut to basic education - will become a focus of legislative resistance between now and the June 30 fiscal-year deadline.

The argument will go something like this: Why risk a further brain-drain by causing in-state schools to jack tuition, forcing our young to go out of state?

A 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education report shows Pennsylvania 14th among states in the percentage of adults ages 25 to 34 with college degrees; at 42.8 percent, we already lag behind neighbors New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

Are we looking to become a northern Arkansas (26 percent)?

Larger schools such as Penn State and Pitt can absorb big cuts, raise tuition and still attract students. The problem, these schools will argue, is that state funding subsidizes lower tuition for in-state students: $14,400 at PSU, for example, compared with $26,200 for out-of-state students.

And for many working families, a 20 percent-or-more tuition hike (threatened if cuts go through) at any college can mean, well, no college.

So how do you, as Corbett said at the end of his budget address, "build a new Pennsylvania" by restricting access to higher education?

Alternatively, the argument will go, let's run social-welfare programs more smartly by reducing eligibility-error rates in Medicaid and consolidating prescription-drug purchases.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner repeatedly says the state can save $436 million by doing the former and $50 million by doing the latter. And Corbett says he likes the ideas.

See where this is headed?

Not many lawmakers with say in a final budget - and, trust me, not many have say - represent districts where welfare programs top the list of constituent concerns.

GOP Senate boss Joe Scarnati represents all or some of eight counties out west and up north; there aren't even people there. House Speaker Sam Smith is from Punxsutawney; enough said. House Appropriations boss Bill Adolph is from Delco, where median household income is $85,547 (the state's is $50,702). And Senate Appropriations chief Jake Corman is from Centre County, a wholly owned subsidiary of Penn State.

Corman on Friday announced a change in the budget-hearings schedule. I don't have to tell you who's now up first.

When I run my theory past Corman, he says: "Clearly, there's significant concern about the higher-education budget." When I press about a higher-ed/welfare funding swap, he says: "That's where the money is. That's the most obvious place to look."

I'm betting that GOP leaders, and rank-and-file Republicans who make up majorities in both chambers, are more willing to cut more money from welfare than from higher ed.

I don't say it's a full swap. But I'll bet higher-ed cuts come down. And the difference is made up in welfare cuts. And when it happens, the Legislature, not the governor, looks less compassionate.

At least that's my theory.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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