John Baer: 50% cut in aid to colleges is too much

Posted: March 21, 2011

THERE ARE LARGER problems in this world than who goes to college and how much it costs.

There are, judging from my email, lots of folks who think that tax dollars shouldn't be part of that discussion, or that lots fewer tax dollars should be involved in lean times.

I hold the view that more education is good. This is based on a raft of studies and census data showing significantly higher incomes for those with higher education, especially over a career.

Pennsylvania ranks dead middle among states, 25th in the percentage of those holding a college degree. Massachusetts ranks first, West Virginia last.

It's no surprise that per-capita income pretty much mirrors these standings.

Still, I can squint and sneer along with snipers who point to tax dollars wasted due to dropouts, or on courses such as Advanced Techniques in Relaxation or Color Therapy II.

And given collegiate calendars and salaries (Seattle-based compensation-data firm says Pennsylvania college profs pull in $62,492 to $122,783), I can see where belt-tightening might be in order.

What I can't see is a straight-razor 50 percent cut, roughly $650 million, for 18 state-funded universities as proposed by Gov. Corbett.

As I wrote a week ago, that won't happen.

Still, it's getting attention because it could bring big bumps in tuition and because at no time during his campaign did Corbett say this is one way he'd cut spending.

All expected big cuts in basic-ed because former Gov. Ed Rendell increased such funding and Corbett ran as the anti-Ed. But no one saw higher-ed caught in Corbett's slicer.

When Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg went before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, he said this: "I followed the election pretty closely. I had conversations with the governor during the campaign . . . I co-chaired his education-transition committee;" yet Nordenberg called the cuts "stunning and surprising."

A couple of other things struck me at the hearing.

Penn State President Graham Spanier said phones at PSU's admissions office rang "off the hook" at 8 a.m. the day after Corbett's March 8 budget address. Parents and students wondered whether they'd still be able to afford tuition.

I pictured families who scrape together the thousands of dollars needed for college worrying about finding thousands more.

And when Temple President Ann Weaver Hart said Corbett's cuts could mean a tuition increase of $5,000 at the North Philly school, I pictured dropouts.

Again, in my view, 50 percent cuts are not going happen.

But if cuts are needed, why not make them in ways that make sense?

Let's assume, for example, that not all universities offer the same levels of efficiency, cost-consciousness or value for the price; then let's reward those offering higher levels of same.

Kiplinger, the venerable D.C.-based publisher of business/finance reports and forecasts since 1920, in January put out its Best Values in Public Colleges.

Pennsylvania has six in the top 100: Pitt ranks 28th with a 57 percent graduation rate at an annual cost of $25,242; Penn State 44th with a 62 percent grad rate at $24,980; West Chester 71st with a 40 percent grad rate at $16,260; Bloomsburg 88th with a 41 percent grad rate at $15,546; Temple 94th with a 40 percent grad rate at $22,974; Millersville 99th with a 53 percent grad rate at $16,998.

Maybe not the final word, certainly not the only measure, but maybe a start in a direction of rewarding performance.

It's good to see the state's largest basic-ed teachers' union, the PSEA, ask its members to consider salary freezes. University teachers should do the same.

Not that they don't earn their money. I taught a graduate-level journalism class for Temple some years back. It wore me out. But clearly cost savings are available at all levels of education. Clearly there's a need to implement them. And all are better-served if the implementation is done with more wisdom than, "Hey, let's cut this baby in half."

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