Top Ten Reasons Pennsylvanians Deserve More from Their Universities

MARCH 17, 2011 | by CHARLES MITCHELL

David LettermanYesterday in Harrisburg, the talk was all about Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal to cut the generous subsidies Pennsylvania taxpayers provide to our universities.  Budget Secretary Charles Zogby said before the Senate Appropriations Committee, according to the Associated Press, that "we're not provided a great deal of information by the universities, in terms of where the dollars go."  University presidents later responded that they issue annual reports and audits, and that is all well and good.

This hit home for me because before returning home to Pennsylvania last year, my job included working on higher education issues with policymakers in states across the country.  To a person, the people I met echoed the Secretary's complaint:  Yes, we get audits.  Yes, we get stacks of paper telling us about new buildings and smiling students.  Yes, we get presidents with their hands out for more money.  But we don't get good data on the results our universities are achieving—the bang they're delivering for a taxpayer's buck.

Based on my experience, then, Secretary Zogby is exactly right.  Higher education is one of the most opaque parts of state spending, not just in Pennsylvania but across the country.  That's why in recent years, several national organizations have begun to shed light on what's going on.  Since the facts they've uncovered are not as well known as they should be, and since we all love a good David Letterman routine, I have compiled the Top Ten Reasons Pennsylvanians Deserve More from Their Universities.

10.  University presidents always say that unless taxpayers pony up with a huge subsidy, tuition will skyrocket.  But we taxpayers provided nearly $3.5 billion to Penn State over the last decade and tuition went way up anyway—it doubled to $15,250.  Penn State is also expensive by national standards; as higher education expert Paul Fain recently blogged, its peers charge an average of $8,503.

9.  Universities have been hiring administrators like nobody's business.  According to a report by the Goldwater Institute, Penn State's administrative staff per 100 students grew by 70.8 percent between 1993 and 2007.  Pitt's chancellor was also complaining to the Senate yesterday; there the increase was 54.7 percent.

8.  Universities love to build sweet buildings, but they don't always use them well.  Penn State's own strategic plan says, "Too often, these facilities are not fully utilized—and the University constructs additional facilities."

7.  It gets worse:  According to a 2005 story in Inside Higher Ed, Penn State President Graham Spanier began "to wonder aloud a few years back if fewer courses should be scheduled at 8 a.m."  The story went on to say, "Officials at the university reported that the number of 8 a.m. courses are down this year 15 percent on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 9 percent on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  The Monday-Wednesday-Friday decrease is a more dramatic 46 percent over 12 years."  Your taxes need to go up so students can sleep in?

6.  Universities are not making sure their students get a solid education.  According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), not a single one of our public universities requires its students to take a basic course in economics or American history.  Many don't even require a college-level math course or mastery of a foreign language.

5.  Students need those courses.  When ACTA administered a basic American history exam to college seniors, four out of five failed.  And according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, 26 percent of graduates of four-year colleges can't reliably calculate the cost of ordering office supplies from a catalog.

4.  Many universities aren't even respecting the U.S. Constitution.  Shippensburg University was sued over its unconstitutional "speech code" after a student testified that he and others were ordered to take down "messages or flyers that were hostile to Osama bin Laden and/or supportive of the American military effort in Afghanistan" after the 9/11 attacks—and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says many other public universities have such codes.  Ignoring the First Amendment costs money, too:  FIRE says similar disputes cost institutions in other states anywhere from $86,000 to $240,000.

3.  Ohio University Professor Richard Vedder has made mincemeat of the oft-heard notion that large taxpayer subsidies for universities produces economic growth.  Dr. Vedder recently wrote, "Are taxpayers and politicians being irrational or at least short-sighted in reducing the proportion of income used to finance state universities?  I have been studying this question for years, and my answer is a resounding ‘no.'"  He added, "At best, summarizing all the evidence, we would say there is no meaningful contribution between higher education spending and economic growth.  However, that is an optimistic interpretation: it is probably true that, on balance, the evidence suggests the relationship is negative—more higher education spending, lower growth."

2.  What will produce economic growth is having universities that prepare graduates for the workforce.  We're not there:  A report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that "63 percent of employers believe that too many recent college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in the global economy."

1.  Many Pennsylvanians are making tough decisions about money in this economy.  The last thing they need is a bigger tax bill due to institutions that are not giving them the bang for the buck they deserve—or to be told that if their taxes don't go up, their tuition bills will.  Amidst a $4 billion budget gap, it's more than reasonable for Gov. Corbett, Secretary Zogby, and others to ask our universities to do more with less.  Put differently, most of us start earning our money at 8 a.m.  It's past time for those who take it from us—through taxes, tuition, or both—to do the same.



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