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We need reinvestment in wake of PASSHE consolidation

The decision by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education board of governors to adopt a radical consolidation plan is disappointing and may ultimately be self-defeating.

It accommodates, and perpetuates a failed 40-year disinvestment in public higher education in Pennsylvania.

This disinvestment threatens opportunity for many Pennsylvanians and will weaken the state’s future economy, especially in the regions anchored by PASSHE campuses. To avoid these consequences, state lawmakers need to pivot now to a reinvestment strategy, capitalizing on the federal resources in the American Rescue Plan and likely to be part of federal infrastructure legislation.

Higher education remains a critical path to both individual and communal success and happiness.

Yet devastating cutbacks in state funding have made the cost of attending four-year state universities, relative to median income, higher in Pennsylvania than in all other states but one.

High cost has driven down enrollment, exacerbating declines because of a drop-off in the number of high school graduates near PASSHE campuses.

But forcing students to travel farther to class or to live on campus will increase, not decrease, those costs–it will undercut the possibility of a robust rebound in PASSHE enrollment when the number of high school graduates in rural Pennsylvania goes back up in the next decade.

Now that the consolidation is finalized, we hope the Pennsylvania General Assembly will finally step up and do its part by providing the funding necessary to reduce the cost of a PASSHE system education–which it can do in the next few years, using federal funds.

Children of working-class Pennsylvanians could once rely on PASSHE to help them enter the middle class–their future, as well as the future of the Pennsylvania economy, depends on them being able to do that again.

(Marc Stier is a director of the Keystone Research Center, a nonprofit research organization that promotes a prosperous and equitable Pennsylvania economy, and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a policy research project that provides analysis on state tax, budget and related policy matters.)

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