Pennsylvania’s Public Universities Have Indigestion

Pennsylvania’s public universities have indigestion.

If you ask them, they’ll say they’re hurting because budget-slashing Gov. Tom Corbett just forced something nasty down their throats—namely cuts to the subsidies they receive from Keystone State taxpayers. Their problem, many of them say, is not enough money, and the only answer is raising tuition on students and parents.

That’s hooey. Yes, these institutions are sick, but it’s because for years, they have been gorging themselves on the educational equivalent of junk food. The fault is their own, not the governor’s and certainly not the taxpayers’.

Does that sound like a quack’s diagnosis? It isn’t, and a new study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent non-profit in Washington, D.C., shows why.

This study asks a simple question about college students: What will they learn? Specifically, it looks at the required courses they must pass in order to graduate. These requirements matter because they show what our universities believe is most important—so important that if you don’t have it, you can’t get your diploma—and what they are making sure their graduates have to offer employers.

The answer, when it comes to Pennsylvania’s public universities, is deeply disappointing. Of the 21 colleges in the study, two thirds—including Penn State—receive D’s or F’s and not a single one gets an A. Only two require a solid course in American history or government. None of them make certain they introduce their students to economics. And 15 don’t even require college-level math. See for yourself at

Make no mistake, though: It’s not that these universities simply tell students that good educational “nutrition” doesn’t matter and they can “eat” whatever they want. Instead, many of them talk a good game but let students gorge on the college-classroom equivalent of Twinkies. For example, at Temple University—which hiked tuition by ten percent—students can take “Sport & Leisure in American Society” to learn about their country and a course offering “fresh perspectives, questions, and ideas on current issues from Google searches to the randomness of the iPod shuffle” to strengthen their math skills.

What does this have to do with budget cuts and tuition hikes? A whole lot.

Just like in the grocery store, eating healthy isn’t just better for you than gorging on junk-it’s cheaper, too. A big survey course on the basics costs less than a whole bunch of smaller classes on niche topics. Pennsylvania’s public universities could give taxpayers more bang for their buck by doing more of the former and less of the latter.

Doing this would even lessen the harm done to students and parents by their recent tuition increases. While most people think college is a four-year endeavor, it isn’t for most students—here in Pennsylvania, more than half of students get their degree in four years at only two of our public universities. And educational experts nationally agree that this is partly due to required courses not being available when students need them. If the requirements made more sense, students could actually learn more in less time-and pay less tuition bills.

The message of last November’s election to our current class of politicians was crystal clear: Stop the overspending. Gov. Corbett and other leaders in Harrisburg have begun to do just that. It’s unfortunate that so many college administrators have indigestion over taxpayers’ relief—but the choice they’ve made to pig out on educational junk food is no one’s fault but their own. Now, the prescription for Pennsylvania’s public universities is this: less bellyaching, more basics.

Charles F. Mitchell is vice president & COO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.