Why Pennsylvania Should Invest in Its Public Universities

 – Melissa K. Downes and Jeanne M. Slattery

It’s April again, and we’re paying our taxes. We suspect that no one really likes paying taxes (though we have no hard evidence for this). No one says, “I’ve just done an important thing that benefits  my community, my state, and my nation by paying my taxes.” But we should.

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Figure 1. Changes in state funding for higher education and tuition costs in Pennsylvania, 2008-2016 (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016).

However, we also need to advocate strongly for how our tax money is spent. Significant evidence suggests that Pennsylvania is not investing enough in public higher education. Since 2008, Pennsylvania has slashed higher education funding by 33.3 percent (a cut of $2,234 per student), while tuition has risen by nearly 20 percent (or $2,202 per student) (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). See Figure 1. Pennsylvania currently ranks “fourth from the bottom nationally in per capita spending on higher education” (Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, 2016, para. 6).

Misrepresentations – by administrators or public servants – of faculty and students at our public universities as lazy and greedy give neither a fair nor realistic view of how public higher education in Pennsylvania benefits every Pennsylvanian. Such misrepresentations are counterproductive and short sighted. They demean and demoralize faculty and students, and, when they lead to a lack of serious investment in higher education, they damage everyone.

We need a college-educated Pennsylvania:

[B]ased on current trends — without significant new investment in capacity — the nation’s education system will not keep pace with the rising demand for educated workers. By 2020, the country’s system of higher education will produce 5 million fewer college graduates than the labor market will need. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016, p. 22)

Affordable and effective public higher education is an important part of our economic and social health as a state. We do a fundamental disservice to all Pennsylvanians and to current and future generations of young people if we do not change our state funding choices.

Public Good vs. Private Benefit

Just this past week, Melissa and her College Writing students were watching Ivory Tower (Rossi, 2014). While this documentary covers many issues in higher education (e.g., “paying for the party,” student debt), one thread running throughout the film is the cultural/political shift in the perception of higher education from that of a public good to a private benefit.

That perception of college as merely a private good has profound repercussions. We see some of those repercussions right now as we view the Senate budget hearings, as five PASSHE universities send out letters of retrenchment, and as the State System conducts a feasibility study to decide the fate of public higher education for those students most needing access to affordable higher education.

While we both firmly believe we have benefited as individuals from our educations and fervently hope our students will benefit personally from their college careers, we as fervently and as firmly believe that higher education is a public good.

While Melissa attended a private university as an undergraduate, her commitment to (and affection for) public higher education started long before she came to Clarion. Jeanne went to a public university as an undergraduate. She has taught at Clarion long enough that the mission to make higher education accessible and affordable, to offer opportunities to succeed to students who might not otherwise have opportunities to do so, is lodged deep in her bones.

Both of Melissa’s parents taught at a state university. Her parents’ lives as professors were made possible by public higher education. Both first-generation college students from poor families, they met and married at Florida State, where her mother was getting her Masters and her father studying for his BA. In her own family history, she has seen the private and public benefits of public higher education, the way that such an education enriches lives, enhances civic and political engagement, promotes social mobility, and makes even more things possible for the next generation.

But personal testimony is not the only evidence of the value of public higher education. Multiple studies attest to its value as a public good.

Some Ways that Higher Education Benefits All of Pennsylvania

The Institute for Higher Education (1998) notes that private and public benefits of education have a “cascade” effect on each other (p. 3). What might appear at first a private good (literacy, for example) also acts as a public one (and vice versa). Though their graphic showing many of the benefits of higher education divides these benefits into public and private, the overlap or “cascade” effect is important to remember. See Table 1. Further, things they deem as having social benefits (improved health, for example) also have long-term financial benefits (both private and public).

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Table 1. Array of benefits derived from a college education (Institute for Higher Education, 1998)

Thus, the private good of greater earned income that many of our students strive for is also a public good:

The economic benefits of increases in postsecondary attainment extend far beyond the individuals who earn credentials. A more productive economy generates a higher standard of living overall. The higher earnings of educated workers generate higher tax payments at the local, state, and federal levels. Four-year college graduates pay, on average, 91% more in taxes each year than high school graduates, and for those who continued on to earn a professional degree, average tax payments are more than three and a half times as high as those of high school graduates. (Ma, Pender & Welch, 2016, p. 9; see also Bergeron, Baylor, & Flores, 2014; Hill, Hoffman, & Rex, 2005)

Furthermore, Hout (2012), who is quite careful about correlation, cause, and competing explanations, suggests that, if education “boosts collective productivity” as research indicates, “then increasing educational attainment for a population might be a key causal factor in overall economic growth” (p. 392). Investing in education makes good business sense.

Beyond these economic benefits of productivity, a higher standard of living, a stronger tax base, and overall economic growth, research shows that higher education brings about further benefits for communities that invest in it.

Investing in higher education tends to correlate with a reduction in crime and the costs associated with crime, according to the Justice Policy Institute (2007):

  • States that made bigger investments in higher education saw better public safety outcomes. Of the 10 states that saw the biggest increases in higher education expenditure, eight saw violent crime rates decline, and five saw violent crime decline more than the national average. Of the 10 states that saw the smallest change in higher education expenditure, the violent crime rate rose in five states. (p. 2)
  • Higher education correlates with increased access to desirable job markets, and thus higher potential wage earnings, heightened aversion to impulsivity due to cultivation of critical thought, and the added deterrent of strong social bonds with community and agency of employment. (p. 10)

A stronger investment in higher education may reduce other costs, as well, including the cost of public assistance programs:

  • Education is…inversely related with reliance on welfare and public assistance. Investing in education reduces the necessity to invest in other public income transfer programs. Twenty-four percent of individuals without a high school diploma have at some time participated in a public assistance program, compared with 4.6 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Lack of education represents a huge cost to society. (NEA Higher Education Research Center, 2003, p. 3)
  • In 2015, 29% of adult high school graduates and 47% of those without a high school diploma lived in households that received Medicaid coverage. Participation rates were 24% for those with some college but no degree, 21% for those with an associate degree, and 12% for those with at least a four-year college degree. 
 (Ma et al., 2016, p. 35)

Evidence suggests a correlation, as well, between higher education, civic engagement, and a stronger democracy:

  • The percentage of individuals who perform unpaid volunteer activities increases with level of education. Among adults age 25 and older, 16% of those with a high school diploma volunteered in 2015, compared with 39% of individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree. (Ma et al., 2016, p. 40)
  • In the 2014 midterm election, the voting rate of 25- to 44-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree (45%) was more than twice as high as the voting rate of high school graduates (20%) in the same age group. (Ma et al., 2016, p. 41)
  • We all benefit from the non-market public effects of education. Society gets a better citizen – one more likely to vote, raise healthier children, volunteer, and provide skills to the community. Informed and involved voters are the foundation of a democratic society, and education helps develop skills for a democracy. (NEA Higher Education Research Center, 2003, p. 3)

And the Most Important Part

While what public higher education does for our state financially and socially is important, we also need to invest in our students. That trite phrase about our children being our future applies here. Educational benefits are intergenerational, as Melissa’s family story suggests. If we deprive a generation (or more) of Pennsylvania’s students access to affordable higher education, our students will pay for the lack; their children will pay for the lack; all of us will pay for the lack.

We believe in public universities and in offering access for students who might not otherwise have a chance at higher education or the opportunities that public universities offer. That is why we are so dismayed to hear of retrenchment notices from the five public universities serving Pennsylvania’s poorest populations. At Clarion, of the 15 Pennsylvania counties from which we frequently bring in 100 or more students, all but two are below the state average in per capita income (Hanover Research, 2013); we suspect that many of our students from the two counties above the state average are not wealthy. Should we turn our backs on Western Pennsylvanians from low-income homes?

We have a profound and widening income gap in higher education. In 2014, 80 percent of graduating high school students from wealthier families (the top family income quartile) pursued a college education. Only 45% of student from the bottom quartile did so (Pell Institute, 2016). Student retention for those from the top family income quartile was 87% in 2014; the continuation rate for students in the bottom quartile was 60% (Pell Institute, 2016).

Working class families need help in sending their children to college. Students from homes with an income of less than $10,000 pay 238% of their family income in average college cost, even though such students select lower-cost schools. The percentage of family income spent on cost of attendance by students from families in the $30-40,000 range is 72%. In contrast, students with family incomes of $200,000 are laying out only 18% of that income, even though attending higher-cost colleges (Pell Institute, 2016).

Facing such costs, many lower-income students must make the unenviable choice of incurring significant debt – a debt made more difficult to pay off by their family circumstances – or not going to college at all. What is a public university for? Are we merely providing somewhat inexpensive education for the middle and upper-middle class or are we helping people succeed when they otherwise might not?

Higher education encourages social mobility and decreases poverty. Regardless of household type – intact, single parent, blended – the rate of poverty falls as education rises (Ma et al., 2016). In 2001, 21% of lowest-income students earning at least a bachelor’s degree attained the highest income quartile after ten years (Ma et al., 2016). Lack of access to affordable public education decreases upward mobility. We must invest more in public education now:

The benefits of higher education remain significant. By 2018, it is projected that only 37 percent of all jobs will require up to a high school diploma, of which only one-third will pay $35,000 or more. By contrast, 54 percent of workers with an associate’s degree and 69 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree are projected to earn more than $35,000 a year. (Coles, 2013, p. 4)

What happens when the costs of college go up (i.e., tuition, fees, books, and housing)? Maguire Associates suggested that the bottom line matters, not only the cost of tuition, and that increases in the overall costs will negatively impact enrollments (Mash, 2017). Pennsylvania has increasingly been shifting the burden of the cost of public higher education onto students and their families: in 1984, Pennsylvania funded 62% of the costs of public higher education, while tuition paid 38%. By 2008, state funding had dropped to 38%, with students and their families responsible for 62% in the form of fees and tuition. Now, 72% of cost is paid by students through tuition and fees (Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, 2016). While we recognize that population/demographics are part of the reason that fewer students are enrolling at many of the PASSHE universities, the increasing cost burden we ask students to take on most impacts the very students we most need to serve.

If our mission is to make education accessible and Pennsylvania stronger, the shift from state funding to student funding of public higher education works against our goals. Since all of Pennsylvania benefits from public higher education, we need a stronger investment in public higher education, and the burden needs to be shared more fairly, so those who most need affordable higher education have access to universities they can afford.

If postsecondary education is necessary to obtain work that pays a living wage, then all individuals, regardless of family income, parents’ education, socioeconomic status, or other demographic characteristic, should have equal opportunity to participate and benefit. (Pell Institute, 2016, p. 7)

Public universities are not a luxury, but a public good and something we must invest in.


Bergeron, D., Baylor, E., & Flores, A. (2014, October). A great recession, a great retreat: A call for a public college quality compact. Retrieved from https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/PublicCollege-report.pdf

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2016, August 15). Funding down, tuition up: State cuts to higher education threaten quality and affordability at public colleges. Retrieved from http://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/5-19-16sfp.pdf

Coles, A. (2013, April). The investment payoff: Reassessing and supporting efforts to maximize the benefits of higher education for underserved populations. Institute For Higher Education Policy. Retrieved from http://www.ihep.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/pubs/the-investment-payoff-final-april-2013.pdf

Hanover Research. (2013). Student home county mapping: Prepared for Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://www.clarion.edu/about-clarion/offices-and-administration/university-support-and-business/office-of-institutional-research/student-home-county-mapping-clarion-university-of-pennsylvania.pdf

Hill, K., Hoffman, D., & Rex, T. R. (2005, October). The value of higher education: Individual and societal benefits (with special consideration for the state of Arizona). Retrieved from https://www.asu.edu/president/p3/Reports/EdValue.pdf

Hout, M. (2012). Social and economic returns to college education in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 379-400. doi: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102503

Institute For Higher Education Policy. (1998). Reaping the benefits: Defining the public and private value of going to college. Retrieved from http://www.ihep.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/pubs/reapingthebenefits.pdf

Justice Policy Institute. (2007, Aug. 30). Education and public safety. Retrieved from http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/07-08_rep_educationandpublicsafety_ps-ac.pdf

Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2016). Education pays 2016: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. Washington, D.C.: The College Board. Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/education-pays-2016-full-report.pdf

Mash, K. (2017, March 30). Accelerating that State System death spiral. State APSCUF Newsletter.

NEA Higher Education Research Center. (2003, May). Higher education: Who benefits? Update 9(3), 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/vol9no3.pdf

Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education & The University of Pennsylvania Alliance 
for Higher Education and Democracy. (2016). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: 2016 Historical trends report. The Pell Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2016_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf

Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. (2016, October 14). Editorial board memo: Higher education funding in Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://pennbpc.org/editorial-board-memo-higher-education-funding-pennsylvania

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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