Pennsylvania higher ed faces belt tightening

Pennsylvania’s money shortfall could exact a troubling toll on the state’s higher-education menu, sooner rather than later.

An upcoming comprehensive study and other measures by state-owned and state-related universities to limit the money shortage’s negative impacts have been late in coming.

Any beliefs that might have persisted that the state’s money troubles would have been resolved by now have been proven naive.

For now, the table that has been set is this:

n In his 2017-18 budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf wants to flat-fund the four state-related universities — Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh. That means that he wants the schools to operate with little or no state-funding increase during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

n The Wolf budget proposes just an $8.9 million funding increase for the 14 state-owned universities that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, at a time when the State System faces a reported $61 million to $65 million deficit.

What Wolf wants regarding any of his budget proposals, including education, is not necessarily what he’ll get. Lawmakers could remove some of the financial pressure from the universities that Wolf’s two higher-education proposals would inflict.

But the state is wrestling with an estimated $3 billion deficit that will limit the Legislature’s options. Therefore, actions once considered unimaginable might soon be unavoidable, such as closing or merging some State System campuses, as well as shuttering a couple of Penn State’s branch facilities.

Regarding the State System, a comprehensive review of PSSHE is in the works that it’s hoped will produce an avenue to avoid closings and mergers. That could include specializing curriculums at the schools, rather than maintaining the “buffet” of degrees that they currently offer.

State System Chancellor Frank Brogan has characterized current operations as “unsustainable,” but a relevant question is why the system only now is pursuing a serious study that should have been undertaken years ago.

Again, the state’s money problems aren’t new.

Therefore, the State System is as much to blame for its current financial peril as the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches are for the state’s overall money woes that have made notable funding increases for higher education impossible.

For the four state-related universities, even if they end up receiving a bit more money under a finalized Fiscal 2017-18 state spending plan, rather than being flat-funded like Wolf intends, belt-tightening will be unavoidable, with or without tuition increases, unless they tap into reserve accounts or other emergency funds to meet needs.

Any additional state money they might receive above what they received for this fiscal year won’t be enough to avert some tough cost-saving decisions.

Like the PSSHE leadership, leaders of the four state-related schools deserve criticism for not doing enough to hold down costs amid the state’s worsening financial picture. That inaction seems to have been predicated on the mistaken notion that at some point the Legislature would abandon its resistance to hiking the income or sales tax.

That won’t happen for next year.

Still, it’s commendable that the state-related and PSSHE schools have continued trying to maintain as many opportunities for their students as possible.

On the education front, Pennsylvania is on a collision course with difficult circumstances, and how terrible the eventual toll might be is greatly unsettling.