“There is probably no bigger issue right now in the higher education arena than the affordability [of a college education],” says the University of Pittsburgh’s new chancellor Patrick Gallagher, “and the reason it’s such an important issue is not just the cost, it’s all of the consequences that cost has.”
Gallagher, who this month took over for Mark Nordenberg, who served 19 years in the post, said those consequences include debt accrued by students and their families.
“If you’re leaving school with a high debt and entering a field where it takes awhile to get started, this could become a real barrier," Gallagher said. "It’s changing the way prospective students are thinking about what they will do coming in. There’s a lot of pressure to know what you want to get out of college before you’ve even started and experienced it.”
This year a Pennsylvanian enrolled at Pitt’s main campus in Arts and Science will pay $16,872, a 3.9 percent hike over last year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Pitt has the highest tuition for a four-year public university or college in the nation.
In approving the tuition hike last month, the Pitt Board cited a third year of flat funding from the state following a 21 percent cut four years ago.
Gallagher, who had been the director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, said the high cost of education must be addressed at the national level and by the university itself.
“You can make the cost very low and deliver a terrible education, but that’s not what we’re after," he said. "I know Pitt works very hard at this. It’s actually very conservative about how it expends fund and that’s good; that’s the efficiency of the organization, but we’ll have to look at that more.”
He said part of the problem has to be tackled at the national level, including changing the loan infrastructure because, “It’s never been more important than now to invest in education.”
“The life earnings between those who attend college and those who don’t have never been larger, and there’s no question that you will reap over your lifetime great benefit from having gone to college and getting a degree," Gallagher said. "The problem is you have to pay for it now and then you incur the benefit a long time in the future.”
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, Pennsylvania students leave college with an average debt of $31,675 — more than $2,400 above the national average.