This commentary first appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot News.
The story is told that when someone asked John D. Rockefeller how much money is enough, he responded, “Just one dollar more.” Penn State’s President, Graham Spanier, like most college leaders, seems to agree.
Pennsylvanians know the story: In the midst of a deep recession, Gov. Tom Corbett has announced that it’s time for state government to find ways to do more with less. And yes, he even means that Penn State should give taxpayers more bang for their buck.
How does Penn State respond? So far, by darkly eyeing campus closures and demanding more money. If taxpayers don’t pony up, we are told, tuition will skyrocket.
Parents are justifiably concerned. But there is a better way. It’s time for this great university and its distinguished leader to seize the opportunity they have to set a national example for excellence in tough times. We suggest four simple steps.
Step one is to stop crying poverty. Their presidents rarely say it, but American colleges and universities spend twice as much per student as the average of other industrialized nations. No wonder more than half of the respondents to a recent survey conducted by Public Agenda said they think colleges could spend less without decreasing educational quality.
Penn State is a case in point. Between 2000-01 and 2010-11, it received nearly $3.5 billion from Pennsylvania taxpayers in the form of state appropriations. And even though its leaders are saying that more state appropriations mean lower tuition, in-state tuition and mandatory fees more than doubled over that period, from $6,852 in 2000-01 to $15,250 this year, growth that is far over inflation.
Step two is to answer this question: Since $3.5 billion didn’t keep tuition down, were Pennsylvania taxpayers not generous enough, or was Penn State’s spending not prudent enough? We can find some answers in U.S. Department of Education data and Penn State’s own reports.
As for the latter, Penn State’s own Strategic Plan has this to say about where the money went: “The University has invested heavily in both the construction of classroom and laboratory.” The report adds: “Too often, these facilities are not fully utilized-and the University constructs additional facilities.”
Step three is to remember Penn State’s mission, which mentions before anything else that the university “educates students.” Unfortunately, there again the news is not good. Almost 45 percent of the students at Penn State’s branch campuses do not graduate from those institutions within six years, and even at the flagship campus, nearly 35 percent of the students cannot finish within the expected four years. This news comes at a time when national studies show that even those students who do graduate lack the skills and knowledge they need.
One report released by the federal Education Department found that 26 percent of graduates of four-year colleges could not reliably calculate the cost of ordering office supplies from a catalog. Meanwhile, the recent book Academically Adrift shows 36 percent demonstrate little gain in critical thinking skills over four (expensive) years in college. This is a national crisis, and Pennsylvania needs to address it.
Finally, step four is to lead courageously. Simply demanding more of Pennsylvanians’ money, be it through taxes or tuition, following a three-year period in which the state’s unemployment rate soared is careless, not courageous. Here are some better ideas:
- Freeze salaries. Penn State speaks of a salary freeze with dismay; by contrast, many Pennsylvanians wish they had salaries to freeze.
- Cut administrative bloat sharply.
- Use classrooms to capacity, mornings, evenings, and Fridays.
- Create incentives for students to finish in four years – or less.
- Find ways for colleges, private and public, to share facilities and resources. Around the nation, university systems are discovering that they can reduce personnel costs by creating online consortia to deliver classes at multiple locations; Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education has been a national model in this regard.
- Improve Penn State’s core curriculum. Instead of hundreds of courses from which to choose for general education, develop team-taught core courses. They are less expensive than an array of esoteric and narrow topics, and they ensure that all students get the skills and knowledge they need.
Penn State has the opportunity to create a better and more equitable model of higher education. Right now, Penn State is telling parents that unless things change, they will face a hefty tuition increase. But the big changes need to start in Old Main, not the State Capitol.
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Michael B. Poliakoff is Policy Director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He served as Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Education from 1996-1999. Charles F. Mitchell is Vice President & COO of the Commonwealth Foundation.