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Lizzie Borden took an axe...

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Lizzie Borden 3.jpgTom Corbett is the Lizzie Borden of higher education in Pennsylvania.

Last year, the governor gave the state-owned and -related universities 40 whacks by proposing cuts of 33 to 50 percent to their state aid, though legislature peeled those cuts back a bit.

This year, he gave them 41.  In his budget for 2012-13, Corbett wants to cut state aid to Penn State, Temple and Pitt by about 30 percent.  He wants a 20-percent cut in state aid to the 14 state-owned schools, a list that includes West Chester and Cheyney.

If these cuts go through, aid to the state-related schools will have gone down 40 percent since Corbett took office and by 34 percent for the state-owned system.

Not to highlight the obvious, but these are major reductions.

What was the governor's rationale for going after these schools with an axe?

As usual, Corbett was vague. In his 4,300-word budget address, he devoted just 250 words to the topic and they didn't make much sense.

He called for "opening a discussion on how we finance high education in this state." (Well, cutting their budgets 20 to 30 percent is one way to get people taking.)

He quoted President Obama, of all people, and his recent speeches on the need for colleges and universities to keep their tuition down so higher education isn't out of reach for most Americans.

He named Rob Wonderling, a former legislator and now head of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, to head a commission on post-secondary education "to make recommendations on how our universities can be serve the students and citizens of this new century."

I can answer that question without studying it for the next 9-months: 

 Our state-related and state-owned universities can help our citizens by offering quality education at an affordable price. With tuition at private schools running from $30,000 to $45,000 a year, the state schools offer poor and middle-class students as opportunity they otherwise could not afford.

By cutting state aid, you guarantee it will be less affordable because the schools will have to increase tuition to partly make up for the loss. That's what they did last year. That's what they'll do this year. The result will be a greater burden on parents, if they foot the bill pay, and on students in the form of higher student loans.

Corbett quoting President Obama is perverse.

As the President has noted, one of the reasons tuition has gone up at state-supported schools in this country is because state governments have been cutting their subsidies to these schools. Obama has called the state's to maintain their level of funding for higher ed. -- not cut it by 20 to 30 percent.

If Corbett's argument is that Pennsylvania has, historically, been overly generous to these schools. It has not.

According to a 2010 report by the State High Education Education Executive Officers association, Pennsylvania ranked 40th in the nation in aid to colleges and universities, The SHEEO study put state aid at $5,159 per student, which is 20 percent lower than the national average.
And tuition makes up a higher percentage of a school's operating budget in Pennsylvania than it does in most other states. The U.S. average is that tuition provides 40 percent of a school's budget; in Pennsylvania the figure is 62 percent. (This is for the state-owned schools.)
If the cuts proposed by the governor go through, Pennsylvania will move even further down the list in terms of state support for higher education. What should we call that? Race to the Bottom.

My guess is that Corbett's true agenda -- or the agenda of the conservatives who surround him -- has to do with price elasticity. Tuition at the state-owned schools is $8,274 a year. Tuition at Penn State, Pitt and Temple hovers around $15,000 a year.

To compare and contrast, tuition at Villanova is $41,260 this year. At Penn is is $42,098. Out west, at Carnegie-Mellon is is $43,812. This is for tuition alone. Room and board is extra.

One could argue that the idea of public support of higher ed is even more necessary today with tuition at private schools zooming out of reach for families and students.

But, if one did argue that, one would not make it into the governor's inner circle.

They want to shift costs for public education from the state to parents and students. In the same way they want to shift cost of basic education from the state to local governments. And the cost of welfare from the state to the counties and cities.

Governments are good at redistributing wealth. Corbett wants to change that. He wants to redistribute the burden -- from the state to others.

In that way, he can brag about not raising state taxes -- while parents dig deeper to meet tuition bills and school districts raise property taxes and lay off workers and city's like Philadephia struggle to meet the needs of the poor, the disabled and the mentally ill with less state help.

Corbett's got two more budgets to present before the end of his first term. By the time Lizzie gets done, the blood may be up to our ankles.

-- Tom Ferrick



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