By Fletcher McClellan
May 1 is approaching – the deadline date for students to send deposits to the college of their choice. For students and their families, it is a time of pride and optimism.
For many colleges and universities, it is a time of high anxiety – programs, jobs, and even the survival of institutions are on the line.
This is particularly true for schools in Pennsylvania, where the 18-21 year-old population is in decline and competition among the more than 150 four-year institutions in the state is tight.
The 14 schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), as a group, have experienced enrollment decline each year since 2010.
Only West Chester University increased its student body during that time. Enrollment at Clarion, Edinboro, and Lock Haven dropped by one-third, Mansfield by more than half, and Cheyney by 70 percent.
Talk of university closures, consolidation, and program elimination in the state system is in the air. The system’s chancellor, Daniel Greenstein, says closing schools is off the table. But the consolidation of services among universities is going forward. He is expected to produce a comprehensive plan later this year.
Already approved are plans to allow the state system schools to set their own tuition rates, instead of adhering to an across-the-board fee. Greenstein would like to see students have the ability to take classes from any state system school.
And, new programs are starting in science, technology, and health-related fields that the job market demands.
The state system’s problems are not just demographic or administrative. State government support for tuition at state-supported and state-related institutions ranks among the lowest in the nation. That means students and families have to pick up an increasing share of costs.
After years of flat or declining state support, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a 1.5 percent increase in the higher education budget, and a $60 million increase to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, or PHEAA, the state’s lending agency.
Unfortunately, this comes nowhere near the increased costs higher education institutions are facing, such as rising health care premiums and the need to provide more academic and psychological support services.
Pennsylvania’s private, non-profit colleges feel the cost crunch most acutely. Many have annual comprehensive fees of more than $50,000.
Though most families receive financial aid packages to offset the price, the sticker shock is enough to drive prospective students away. Some colleges, including my own institution, have cut tuition significantly to become more competitive with the public schools.
Haunting all of higher education are stories of college and program closings. An average of 11 private colleges shut down each year, and the number is increasing. Experts were stunned by the news that Hampshire College, a noted experimental institution in Massachusetts, was not going to recruit a first-year class next fall.
Enrollment pressures come at a time when the public image of higher education is taking a beating. Student debt has reached a cumulative total of $1.5 trillion, or an average of nearly $30,000 per student.
Conservatives say colleges are havens of political correctness. Pointing to the recent pay-to-play scandal in college admissions, liberals charge that the system is rigged against the working and middle classes.
Consequently, higher education has become a casualty of political polarization. By a 58-36 percent finding in a 2017 Pew Research poll, Republicans said colleges have a negative effect on the country. Democrats were overwhelmingly positive, 72 to 19 percent.
Ironically, major studies of the value of colleges report that higher education remains a good investment. The US Census Bureau reported that college graduates earn an average of $2.1 million over a lifetime, compared to $1.3 million for those with a high school diploma.
Despite challenges from the larger environment and scandal, traditional college campuses are likely to survive. Headlines about debt are not scaring students away. Almost 70 percent of high school graduates in 2016 enrolled in a two-year or four-year college that fall.
Moreover, flagship public universities such as Penn State University, and elite private colleges with large endowments will prosper.
On the other hand, less selective state and private institutions will encounter serious challenges to attract and retain students.
Thus, like much of economic and political life, the higher education sector will increasingly divide between haves and have-nots.
In turn, this will negatively affect lower-income students, who disproportionately enroll at less selective schools.
This suggests that the crisis in higher education has more to do with growing economic inequality and lack of political support than with the sometimes-puzzling actions of college administrators and faculty.
Certainly, college is not for everyone, but it should be accessible and affordable for all who dream and have the ability and determination to try.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. His work appears regularly on The Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.