White-out not Needed for Higher Ed Cuts

This Commentary First Appeared in the Lebanon Daily News on April 7.

Like many from the Lebanon Valley, I grew up rooting for the Nittany Lions, believing everything coming from Happy Valley was, well, happy. To be sure, my father and one sister were well-educated there, becoming a doctor and audiologist respectively – an academic, family and societal touchdown.

But upon further review, today’s Penn State and other taxpayer-subsidized universities have run out of bounds with their unseemly and out-of-touch response to Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget cuts on higher education.

Before the ink barely dried on Corbett’s March 8 speech, ivory-tower tenants like Penn State’s President Graham Spanier, whose compensation topped more than $800,000 last year, were rattling the tin cup and sabers in order to run from their fair share of what the governor termed “collective sacrifices.”

In essence, Spanier vehemently argued the cuts, amounting to a scant 4 percent of Penn State’s operating budget, would force the cash-strapped university to raise tuition rates and possibly close branch campuses – an academic sin that would have land-grant university proponent Abraham Lincoln himself rolling in his grave, he cried.

But before you heed the haranguing head Lion’s roar, it’s important to hit the books for what is really going behind the higher-ed curtain. The ugly truth, regardless of rhetoric, is that taxpayers continue to subsidize universities regardless of their performance.

Today, the percentage of students enrolling at Pennsylvania’s public universities who don’t graduate four year ranges from 42-89 percent, with Penn State boasting a mere 58 percent. As for their 19 branch campuses, that success rates drops to anywhere from 11 to 48 percent.

This could be easily dismissed if the extra time spent in our universities produced better students and more-prepared workers. Unfortunately, the stats tell a much sadder tale.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education only 26 percent of graduates of four-year colleges can reliably calculate the cost of ordering office supplies from a catalog.

Add to this a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that found 63 percent of employers believe too many recent graduates do not have the skills to succeed in the global economy. Parents looking to invest in their child’s future, along with Pennsylvania taxpayers, should really be paying attention when these institutions simply ask for more.

But if taxpayer return on investment isn’t enough to sway you, some careful consideration of higher ed’s poor stewardship of your dollars certainly should. Consider these days that while many Pennsylvania families would love to have more money to administer, administrative costs at universities throughout the commonwealth have skyrocketed.

For its part, Penn State increased administrative staff per student by more than 70 percent from 1993 and 2007, and the University of Pittsburgh made increases of nearly 55 percent, according to a Goldwater Institute study. In fact, about two-thirds of state-school revenue (read taxes and tuition) goes to pay for services and auxiliary functions outside the classroom.

For what, you ask? Well, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, officials invested in a new recreation center including a golf simulator with 52 different golf courses. This should be no surprise considering former IUP president Tony Atwater set a state-school spending record on food, travel and residential costs, at more than $400,000 in five years.

This doesn’t even begin to address the money our universities have spent constructing new buildings that are unnecessary to provide their mission, yet they continue to build. Even a cursory look at Penn State’s own strategic plan finds them admitting their facilities are being underutilized.

Instead of the ivory tower automatically lowering the money bucket and expecting us to blindly fill it, Penn State and other taxpayer-funded universities should use their vast academic resources to find ways to cut spending, freeze salaries and tighten their fiscal belts. After all, our state schools should always be a reflection of the society that funds them.

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Jay Ostrich is Director of Public Affairs for the Commonwealth Foundation, www.commonwealthfoundation.org