Freezing state tuition a good first step

Penn State, Temple, Harrisburg University and Pennsylvania’s System of Higher Education (PASSHE) all have announced they are freezing tuition for undergraduate Pennsylvania residents for the 2019-20 academic year. This is a step in the right direction and one that other colleges in our area would do well to consider.

Student debt is one of the most pressing issues of our day. It is a direct threat to the futures of bright young people eager to start their lives and change the world. Except unlike previous generations of college grads, they are saddled with thousands of dollars of debt even before they have their first jobs.

For too long colleges in our region and throughout the country have thought they could continue business as usual – raising tuition, room and board and even fees on the backs of young people convinced they won’t have a life without a college degree.

But for many young graduates, the life they envisioned didn’t include worries over how to pay off student loans before they had a paycheck. While college grads can generally expect to make more than people without a college education, they also are seeing their income eroded by the loans they have to pay back – with interest.

It is not uncommon for students to leave college with upwards of $50,000 in loans, and then take out more for graduate school. What will be the repercussions of having this kind of debt as they start entry-level jobs at $30,000 or $40,000 a year? And what happens when these students marry, bringing double debt into their union?

No wonder millennials have high expectations of the kind of work they will accept after college. And no wonder many are rethinking the benefits of the traditional four, five or six years on a college campus.

All of this is bringing a long-feared reckoning for many colleges and universities in our region, especially the smaller ones with the high price tags.

Harvard management expert Clayton Christensen has predicted the country will see a growing number of these colleges close in the next decade as enrollment continues to decline and college leaders are unable to meet the challenges.

And the challenges are immense. To meet them, colleges that want to survive are reorganizing, cutting majors and programs and reducing tuition.

HACC has announced it is reorganizing and eliminating positions to deal with a $9 million debt brought on by lower enrollment.

Elizabethtown College, facing similar enrollment problems, is discontinuing two majors and three minors, meaning staff and faculty positions will be cut. All of this despite its “tuition reset” last year.

“Our reality is much like many higher education institutions across the U.S. We recognize that demographics have shifted, especially in the northeastern part of the country,” said President Carl Strikwerda in announcing the program cuts this month.

Lebanon Valley College also is cutting $1.6 million to academic, meaning both programs and staff reductions.

And in addition to the tuition freeze, the Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education is undergoing what it calls a “System Redesign,” including a top-to-bottom review of its 14 universities. The system has suffered enrollment declines for almost a decade and now has 100,000 students on all of its campuses.

But Penn State, Temple and Harrisburg Universities and PASSHE get it. The leaders of these institutions have acknowledged one key fact – their responsibility to Pennsylvania families.

“As part of our land-grant partnership with the Commonwealth, it is imperative that we do all that we can to keep a Penn State education within financial reach for Pennsylvania students and their families,” Penn State president Eric Barron said.

Truer words have never been spoken. But let’s be honest, the high cost of tuition is threatening higher ed.

The system is broken, and unless more college trustees and presidents face the facts and fix it, they will face the inevitable – fewer students and the ultimate closure of their hallowed halls.

– PennLive.com