To Educate or Not
When David Wang graduated at the top of his 2008 Mt. Lebanon High School class, he had his pick of prestigious universities. The University of Pittsburgh offered him a full undergraduate scholarship and guaranteed his admission into Pitt’s School of Medicine after his undergraduate degree.
So Wang turned down Princeton, Duke, Cal Tech and the University of Pennsylvania to enroll less than 10 miles from his high school.
“There’s just no way I could’ve turned down Pitt’s offer,” he says. “It was just too good to pass up.” Now a college junior, Wang was named a finalist for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, putting him in an elite class of undergraduate scientists, mathematicians and engineers nationwide.
But if Governor Tom Corbett’s proposed 2011–12 budget cuts pass, there’s no guarantee students with Wang’s abilities and qualifications will study here in the future.
Facing at least a $4 billion deficit, Corbett’s proposed budget cuts would eliminate $80 million in state funding to the University of Pittsburgh and cut support for Western Psychiatric Institute and Pitt’s medical and dental schools. Outside Pitt, Corbett’s budget proposes reductions for three other “state-related” universities—Temple, Penn State and Lincoln University—and the 14 schools of the State System of Higher Education, which include Slippery Rock, Edinboro, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, California University and Clarion. Total state higher education spending would drop by about 44 percent from nearly $1.5 billion to $835 million if Corbett’s budget passes.
Wang says the topic has come up in class. “It’s troubling,” says the chemistry and applied mathematics major with minors in physics and economics. “A 50 percent budget cut puts the university—and the state on a whole—at a great disadvantage.”
Pitt didn’t always receive state funding. The university was private until 1966, when it became one of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities.
In “Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh 1787–1987,” the late Robert C. Alberts explained why. Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield led the university into monumental construction and improvement projects. These included Hillman Library and Trees Hall, a broadened international studies program, the development of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and increased professor salaries and pension increases. When the dust settled, the university faced an estimated $4.5 million deficit (equivalent to about $32 million in today’s dollars).
This was not unexpected. Litchfield—who told The Pittsburgh Press in February 1965 that Pitt was “a school with Ivy League aspirations”—had explicitly made the decision to spend money the university did not have.
“In 1955-56 the administration was faced with two alternatives—to expand or not to expand,” Litchfield wrote in 1961. “In other words, it was necessary that the university spend more money than it had to develop an academic program which was wanted and needed, in order to bring corporate and other support which was not here in Pittsburgh.”
By January 1965, the university was broke. Litchfield opposed asking the commonwealth for funding, so he looked for programs to cut. He didn’t get far. When he proposed closing the Allegheny Observatory, for example, the editor-in-chief of Harvard Observatory Publications asked Litchfield to reconsider, writing in a letter that closing the observatory would “badly degrade [Pitt’s] reputation.”
By May, Litchfield had neither reduced, nor created a plan to reduce, Pitt’s deficit. Members of Pitt’s board and administrative committees began to doubt his judgment. They considered a new relationship with the commonwealth, which had been discussed with Republican Governor William Scranton.
Under stress, Litchfield collapsed from a heart attack after a dinner meeting in May 1965. An acting chancellor was appointed while Litchfield recovered. Litchfield, however, would not return to office, resigning that July.
Pitt soon established a relationship with the commonwealth that would provide $5 million in emergency aid and $5.8 million for regular maintenance.
The goal in this new relationship, Alberts wrote, was to keep tuition rates low and offer higher education to more Pennsylvanians. In 1963, 51 percent of nationwide high school graduates enrolled in college; Pennsylvania’s number was 38 percent. The new relationship between the commonwealth and the University of Pittsburgh was intended to change that—and to make Pitt solvent again. Establishing itself as a state-related university rather than a part of the state system also allowed Pitt the freedom to act as a private university; it would continue to control its own budget and would not need to consult with the state before making capital expenditures.
By November 1966, Pitt showed an operating surplus for the first time in nearly a decade. With commonwealth support, Pitt was also able to drop in-state tuition from $1,450 to $450 per year (equivalent to a drop from $10,000 to $3,100 today).
Pitt’s board appointed Dr. Wesley W. Posvar chancellor in January 1967—a position he held until 1991.
“To me, the biggest single task facing this board in the immediate future is to establish and help fulfill a new goal… to make Pitt a really fine regional university, serving southwestern Pennsylvania and the Upper Ohio Valley,” said one board member when Posvar’s appointment was announced. “I, for one, do not see any contradiction between a desire for genuine excellence and a regional orientation.”
Pitt’s overall enrollment in 1965 was 17,405. In 1966, the first year of its affiliation with the commonwealth, enrollment bumped up to 20,938. In 1970, that number rose to 30,455 and grew consistently until it leveled in 1982 at 35,317, where the numbers have more or less remained. In 2010, Pitt’s enrollment was the highest it has ever been at 35,734.
One could argue that the university fulfilled its stated 1966 goals after becoming a state-related university. More than 80 percent of Pitt’s undergrads come from Pennsylvania and 60 percent of its 277,000 living alumni live in the state. The university boasts Rhodes, Truman, Udall, Gates, Cambridge and Goldwater Scholars and stresses that in Allegheny County alone, 74,800 Pitt alumni and staff contribute $5.6 billion in earnings and spend more than $687 million on goods, services and rental payments. Annually, the university invests an average of $140.7 million on construction and generates more than 1,300 jobs in construction and related industries.
The university, in other words, is a major economic anchor for the region and one of the key reasons Pittsburgh’s economy weathered the recession.
The proposed budget, however, will have a drastically negative impact on Pitt and the regional economy, according to Paul A. Supowitz, Pitt’s chancellor of governmental relations, and Jeff Gleim, associate vice chancellor of alumni relations.
“In the interests of Pennsylvania’s high-achieving students and their families, and the interests of the economic health and survival of Western Pennsylvania, the commonwealth should uphold its commitment to these millions of Pennsylvania citizens,” Supowitz and Gleim wrote in an open letter dated March 8, 2011, the day Corbett proposed the education cuts. “Pitt has shouldered more than its fair share of the cutbacks in state funding over the past decade (with reductions to our appropriation in six of the past 10 years)” and “the commonwealth invests fewer state dollars in Pitt today than it did 10 years ago.”
The cuts will raise tuition at Pitt, the letter states, driving Pennsylvania students, staff and their families away from the region.
University representatives aren’t the only ones with this assessment. “Major education cuts cause a ripple effect,” says Phil Oliff, a state budget and tax expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. Tuition goes up, faculty and staff get laid off and programs get closed. “That limits access and compromises states’ economic futures.”
And Pennsylvania’s higher education budget cuts are more drastic than in any other state. The nearest, Oliff says, is California, which faces proposed cuts between 30 and 40 percent to higher education. A report from the budget center says Pennsylvania’s new proposed levels of higher education spending amount to the lowest level of state funding for public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania since 1983.
“Governors like Corbett have taken a cuts-only approach to balancing their budgets,” Oliff says. “And these cuts will likely be devastating to local economies.”
They’ll also hurt aspiring college students, says Ann Speicher, associate vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities.
“We are concerned that state governments seem to be abandoning their commitment to providing the broad range of their citizens with access to the leading public research universities in their states. While the universities might raise tuition to sustain the quality of the education they provide, state funding cuts for education mean that many talented low- and middle-income students could lose the opportunity for an education at these institutions. This, in turn, would be a serious loss for the state.”
Ron Cowell takes this assertion a step further. The former state representative who now serves as president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg says Pennsylvania has the “worst school-funding system in the country” and that the proposed cuts would only weaken the state system. “‘Devastating’ is really the only word to describe it. If you’re concerned about an educated citizenry or workforce, this is a bad budget.”
But if that’s the case, why would Corbett’s administration even consider such cuts? The answer may be that cuts from elsewhere in the budget could be even more devastating.
“Higher education is simply easier to cut,” says Tracy Gordon, the Okun-Model fellow for the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She says universities are more flexible to make changes within an already established system without terminating staff positions or closing campuses. They can increase class sizes, for example, or raise tuition to make up for losses. The same cannot be said for public welfare programs or even the state’s corrections system, which tend to have fewer and more rigid opportunities for revenue.
Quality may suffer as a result of cuts to higher education, and the value of an education might diminish, she says, adding that legislators are forced into weighing this diminishing value against, for instance, shortening criminal sentences.
“It’s not clear that voters will be willing to accept those kinds of policies. And so these cuts in higher education might be the new normal; state budget officers may have to be prepared for a new era of permanently depressed revenues.”
Gordon says this could be a good thing. Though making light of less income might be tricky, she says cuts in higher education revenue could inspire “innovation” from universities forced to maintain their course offerings despite diminished support.
The cuts have some support, including from former Shaler police sergeant Randy Vulakovich, who is now a Republican state representative. “Maybe [Pitt] has too many people working there,” he says. “Maybe they should contribute more to their benefit packages.”
Whether such support is enough to pass the education cuts will be tested when the legislature votes in June.
The amount of state money underwriting education has decreased nationwide for decades, says Dr. James C. Garland, the former president of Miami University of Ohio. This is supported by Pitt’s numbers: In the mid-1970s, state funding represented more than 30 percent of Pitt’s overall budget. Corbett’s proposed 2012 budget would represent less than 5 percent.
In Garland’s view, that means state universities need to become autonomous. In 2009, Garland published “Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities.” The book advocates not only university autonomy but also that state funding should go to low-income students rather than universities.
Such a change would force universities to compete for scholarship money given to those students and also to “prune weak programs” that no longer attract new students.
“Universities have become inefficient,” he says. “Cuts could be seen as a way to necessitate much needed changes in the way they operate.”
Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, calls this “short-sighted.” A university can’t extract itself from a state system in one year, she says. Furthermore, a 50 percent budget decrease doesn’t encourage thoughtful efficiency as much as it encourages hasty cuts.
“It’s problematic to suggest universities can make these cuts when parents and students are demanding better services, better education, more dorms, more programs. It just doesn’t reflect the market that colleges and universities are in.”
In David Wang’s economics class, recent lectures have focused on developing countries trying to grow economically. “We’ve learned that in developing countries, you can’t just force industrialization without increasing education along with it.”
And while it’s difficult to see Pittsburgh as “developing,” this message of economic growth through education echoes Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg’s views about Pitt’s role in Western Pennsylvania.
Nordenberg cites Pennsylvania history in defending his university’s role in Pittsburgh’s development. The Act of 1787 was passed by the state legislature to establish “the frontier academy that would become the University of Pittsburgh,” because “the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government.” He calls Corbett’s cuts a reversal of that belief, some 224 years later, as well as a “fiscal assault” on Pitt and other state-related universities.
Pitt’s agreement to establish ties with the commonwealth in the mid-’60s was “driven by the belief that creating larger numbers of reasonably priced, but high-quality, university opportunities was not only critical to the individual aspirations of the daughters and sons of Pennsylvania but was a key to our collective, long-term well-being.”
Nordenberg questions the choices upon which Corbett’s budget proposal was built. “These are choices that will make it far harder for the young people of Pennsylvania to use the power of education to build better lives; choices that will put a real financial squeeze on Pennsylvania families, often still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession; choices that will impede this region’s economic recovery; and choices that make it less likely that Pennsylvania as a state will compete and thrive in the 21st century.”