As Governor Tom Corbett gears up for the release of his 2014-15 budget proposal next month, Pennsylvania Democrats are disparaging cuts to higher education over the course of his tenure.
Total state spending on state-related higher education institutions dropped by 18% in 2011-12, and funding has remained flat since then.
Nadia Lehtihet is a junior Biochemistry & Molecular Biology major, and the president of the College Democrats at Penn State University. She said the effects of those cuts are being felt across campus.
“Penn State is accepting more and more students into their freshman class to try to increase the revenue that they’re getting from tuition dollars,” said Lehtihet. “At the same time they don’t necessarily have the space, the facilities, the classrooms, the dormitories to accommodate these students.”
Lehtihet said a bachelor’s degree is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for young people who want to make a decent living. She said keeping college tuition low is the best way to make sure that students can afford a college education.
“Twenty or thirty years ago it would be reasonable to take a year off and work and save money for college, but now the type of … minimum wage job that you could get … with a high school degree is just not going to make you enough money to put college education within your reach,” said Lehtihet.
Joe Sestak, former United States Congressman representing suburban Philadelphia, is a professor at Penn State, and said a bachelor’s degree today is similar to what a high school diploma was a half century ago.
“The bottom line here is higher education cuts are often talked about as being discretionary. They’re not. It’s mandatory funding,” said Sestak.
He also said an increased reliance on the inexpensive labor of adjunct and part time faculty is affecting the quality of education at state schools.
“Almost sixty percent of those who teach are either part time or adjunct,” said Sestak. “That is, they’re not full time tenure, and their salaries are about one-fifth of a full-time tenured professor.”
Sestak pulled those numbers from a 2010 report published by the left-leaning Keystone Research Center, which found that contingent faculty members teach 55 percent of the courses at Pennsylvania’s state-related institutions. Contingent faculty includes not only adjunct and part-time faculty, but also graduate students, lecturers, and other non-tenure track instructors.
The report also found that, per course, state institutions paid adjunct and part-time faculty just 19 percent of what they paid tenured and tenure-track faculty.
Sestak and Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chair Jim Burn both said they want to see higher education levels restored to pre-2011 levels.
Burn said he’d like to see Corbett reach across the aisle to “find common ground” with Democrats who want to increase spending on higher education.
“Which gets back to another fundamental problem with this governor: his lack of inclusion in bringing people to the table to talk about solutions that everyone can live with as we move forward,” said Burn.
Corbett’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.