Real Culprit in Rising Higher Ed Costs

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Since Gov. Tom Corbett proposed his state budget, one of the areas generating the most publicity and, quite possibly, the most misinformation, is the planned cuts to higher education.

After enduring the marathon House Appropriation budget hearings on this matter, I was greatly disappointed to see the sheer level of posturing by the academic community, intermixed with very little clarity in terms of actual solutions.

Understanding that the university representatives testifying before the committee are advocates for their respective institutions, it was troublesome that none seemed to offer any suggestions on how they would produce the recommended cuts—instead it was the same old "don’t gore my ox" mentality.

Each university bureaucrat attempted to put a smiley face on the value of their university and justify why they should not trim their budget. In addition, they complained that any cuts would be borne on the backs of students through increased tuition.

Once and for all, let me clearly state, that virtually everyone agrees that our State System of Higher Education contributes to the economic, social, and future health of our Commonwealth.
Yet the most important, biting question that no one asked or answered, still remains: can they provide a quality higher education at a lower cost?

If you ask the leadership of almost any small private college in the state they will no doubt present an equally strong argument that their institution actually does provide a quality education at a comprobable cost. Grove City College was one example mentioned during the hearings, and Saint Vincent College, where I have taught for more than a decade, would be another.

It is also important to remember that even though published tuition may be higher at small private colleges, after considering total scholarships offered, they can be competitive with the state-related schools.

I believe the reason no solutions were brought forward is because of the overwhelming refusal to address the true driver for the rising cost of a college education: salaries and benefits.
While one president mentioned his institution had implemented a pay freeze in two of the last three years, he did not say how high the salaries and benefits remain. Of course, the argument will certainly be proposed that universities have to offer the highest salaries to attract the best faculty. Again, smaller colleges offer quality education often at a fraction of the salaries of state-related universities.

In addition, we must also question whether the ratio of administration and faculty to students is appropriate and sustainable. By nature, every large bureaucracy spawns some sort of administrative overkill and even waste.

Penn State University President Graham Spanier mentioned that he writes about 47,000 paychecks per month, which of course includes his own 2010 fiscal year salary totaling $800,592. As Governor Corbett previously questioned, is it appropriate for Penn State to employ 47,000 faculty and administration to support 96,000 students? Few businesses could function on a 2-1 customer to employee ratio. At this point, nothing should be sacrosanct, including teaching load and travel budgets.

It is even more troubling to witness some suggestions that any elected official asking universities to live within budget constraints means that one is automatically against education. Pennsylvania taxpayers have clearly spoken and consistently demand that state lawmakers look for ways to provide the very best higher education at an affordable price.

Let’s stop demagoguing potential tuition hikes and consider addressing the real culprit: salaries, benefits and the sheer numbers of faculty and administration needed to run our state-related universities.

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Representative Richard Saccone represents the 39th District covering parts of Allegheny and Washington Counties. Visit or for the latest legislative updates.