Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Budget Sec Criticizes PA Colleges for Grad Rates

If you didn’t see Governor Tom Corbett’s budget coming, you “must have been living under a rock.” That’s the opinion of Budget Secretary Charles Zogby, who, during a Tuesday morning interview, pointed out candidate Corbett was very clear on how he’d tackle Pennsylvania’s $4 billion budget gap. “He said very emphatically he’s not going to raise taxes. He’s not going to raise fees. That’s the budget he presented. He didn’t raise taxes. He didn’t raise fees. I don’t think that should come as any surprise to anyone.”

Corbett’s budget has been public for a week now. The $27.3 billion plan trims about a billion dollars off current spending levels, and slashes spending for 19 departments, including more than $600 million in support for higher education. Zogby said he expects reduced funding for state-related and State System of Higher Education schools to be the focal point of this year’s budget debate, and he and the rest of the Corbett Administration aren’t afraid to take the institutions on.

When asked whether Penn State University President Graham Spanier was “crying wolf” when he said the funding cuts would lead to tuition increases, reduced courses and the possibility of closed campuses, Zogby said, “I think there’s a little bit of that.” He continued, “I worked in DC for a time, and in budget matters they had a ‘close the Washington Monument’ strategy. Close the most visible and painful thing that you can find, even though it might not be affected. I really can’t say whether a branch campus of any university would close or not. But I think those sorts of tactics, including tactics of saying there’s going to be large tuition increases for parents and students, I think that tends to be more trying to generate excitement than really having a substantive argument or discussion on the merits.”

Funding for the 14 SSHE schools would go from $444 million to $232 million; Penn State’s revenue would drop from $304 million to $152 millon; and Pitt, Temple and Lincoln would see similar cuts. Zogby said the reductions are born out of both necessity and philosophy. “Again, I go back to results and performance,” he said. “What we get for our state dollars. And I think it’s very difficult, when you put the money into the institutions, to see what it is that we’re getting. What’s the yield, the benefit, that we’re getting with our tax dollars.”

The Corbett Administration plans to use schools’ graduation rates as proof of poor performance. “Look at 4-year graduation rates at some of the Penn State branch campuses,” Zogby said, pulling out a page of statistics. “We’ve got DuBois at 29 percent of the students graduating in four years, yet 49 percent of those students are there getting state aid, at an average of $3,000. We’re looking at other campuses that have 15, 21 percent, 26 percent four-year graduation rates. It’s scandalous. These kids are going, and they’re paying five, six years to get what used to take a four-year education. Many of them are supported by the largesse of the state, yet what results are we getting?”

Educators say many students are taking longer to graduate because they’re working their way through college, but Corbett made a similar argument on Monday, during a York County press conference. “I am concerned about the graduation rates. Graduation rates in four years, I think University Park is 60 percent in four years? I come from an era where you have four years.” Zogby’s source for graduation rate data, the National Center for Education Statistics, says Penn State’s main campus has a 62 percent four-year graduation rate.

Both Zogby and Corbett’s rhetoric softens when the topic shifts from state-related to SSHE schools. Corbett blasted Penn State’s tuition increases, but Zogby conceded SSHE institutions have done a good job of keeping their rates low. “I would say the SSHE is on firmer ground than other institutions” when it comes to their public concern about the impact of Corbett’s cuts, said Zogby. “That was a difficult area to make cuts in, but something we had to do. Like other institutions, the SSHE needs to adjust and make some choices to see how it can live within its means.” The proposed cuts represent a more than 20 percent budget hit for many of the 14 SSHE schools. On Monday, Corbett said he’s willing to negotiate specific line items, but he’s holding firm on his $27.3 total.

Listen to WDUQ Reporter Scott Detrow's Interview With Charles Zogby

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