No Longer the Great Equalizer: New study highlights how Pennsylvania’s low and declining investment in higher education threatens access to college, especially for Black and Hispanic families

Diana Polson |

As we have showed previously, low levels of state funding for public higher education in Pennsylvania has led to high and increasing tuition, fees, and housing costs for students and some of the highest average debt in the nation for graduating students. This has had the effect of limiting access for working-class students to higher education, despite its role as the great equalizer.

The Center on Budget and Policy Center has released a new report on the state of higher education funding trends across the states. And guess what? It shows, once again, that Pennsylvania is failing to invest in public higher education despite its obvious benefits to young (and older) adults across the state and our economy as a whole.

Between 2008 and 2018, state spending for higher education per student in Pennsylvania declined 34%, resulting in $2,541 less per student per year in state funding. Declining state support for public higher education is a trend we are seeing in most states across the country—only nine states increased per student funding over the last decade. Even so, Pennsylvania stakes its claim near the top of that list with the sixth greatest percentage decline in the nation, behind only Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

The result of this decline in state funding for public higher education is that the average tuition went up by $3,006 in inflation-adjusted dollars for four-year public colleges and universities from $11,504 to $14,510, an increase of 26%.

Now it would be one thing if wages were increasing at around the same rate as college costs, but we know this is not the case. Nationally, real median income between 2008 and 2018 grew by 1.8%—not even close to the 26% increase in tuition in Pennsylvania.

Analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the average net price of attending a Pennsylvania public four-year university—including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, minus aid received for a student—cost 34% of the median Pennsylvania household income. And this varied by race. The price was 32% of the median white, non-Hispanic household income. But for African Americans the cost of attending was 54% of median household income and 50% for Hispanic families.

Comparatively, Pennsylvanians pay a higher share for public four-year universities than their counterparts in other states. In fact, overall, only residents of two other states (South Carolina and Alabama) have families paying a higher share of their household income on higher education.

The result is more hardship for working families in our state who want to send their kids to college but are barely able. But just as important, cost is becoming a barrier to lower- and middle-income students getting access to higher education in the first place. In fact, our analysis shows that students from families with incomes in the bottom 60% have declined in Pennsylvania’s state system universities by 15% and in state-related universities by 23%.

We Pennsylvanians need to get our priorities straight and invest in our state’s most valuable resource—our people. We should pass the Pennsylvania Promise plan which would make college affordable. Learn more about the plan here.

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