Cuts clash with college-attainment goals
Tuition costs have been climbing, and recent state and local budget cuts have wiped out some key support programs.
by Dale Mezzacappa
For two years running, city schools have seen a promising increase in the number of high school graduates going straight into college.
But that trend is now in jeopardy.
Local and state budget cuts are decimating key programs and personnel that help students see college as a goal and navigate admissions. On top of last year's deep cuts to schools and the central office, the District plans to eliminate funding for nearly 100 counselors.
At the same time, higher education cutbacks are causing tuition to soar, financial aid to decline, and student debt to skyrocket.
"The chances of going to college in Philadelphia are not nearly as good as [they are] in other places in the country, and there's no public plan for the future of these systems," said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Higher Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's absolute chaos."
Already, the student share of college costs in Pennsylvania is one of the highest in the country, said Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Cost Project of the American Institutes for Research. "The national average is 52 percent. In Pennsylvania, it is 70 percent, and that was a couple of years ago. It is even higher now."
Pennsylvania is changing from a "high tuition, high aid" state to a "high tuition, high debt" state, Finney said.
Gov. Corbett slashed higher education spending last year and is proposing more cuts this year – 30 percent for the state system, 20 percent for state-related universities, and smaller reductions for community colleges.
If any of Corbett's proposed cuts get through the legislature – the Senate balked, passing a budget that restored them – it could further limit college-going opportunities. Combined with recent tightening of eligibility requirements for federal Pell grants, "there is great potential for cutting access for a large group of students," Kirshstein said.
State and federal policies that are driving up tuition costs are "undermining" the city's efforts to increase the percentage of residents with a college degree, said Mayor Nutter.
Community College of Philadelphia, which is the destination for about a third of District graduates who pursue college, has raised tuition 5 percent this year and plans another 5 percent increase next year.
While it is still the most affordable option, said Steven Curtis, CCP's president, "at every level, federal state, and local, the lack of general support for public higher education is whittling away opportunities."
"In some cases, we try to fill in gaps; in other cases, we simply don't have the resources."
The state's share of CCP's funding declined from 37 percent 10 years ago to 23 percent now; the city share is down from 24 percent in 2001-02 to less than 15 percent this year. That leaves about 60 percent of the burden on the students.
Finney, who has worked with more than 20 states on their higher education policy, decried what she termed a "lack of dialogue" in Pennsylvania about the role of education in providing opportunities and setting the Commonwealth's economic course.
"The state has no plan to fund higher education in the future. It is simply cutting and shifting the cost to students," she said.
Nutter didn't disagree.
"I haven't had that level of conversation with the governor or legislative leaders in Harrisburg," said the mayor. "I'd certainly like to think there is [a plan] somewhere."
Finney said she admires Mayor Nutter's college-attainment goals, but doesn't see how he can meet them in the current climate.
"He needs the state as a partner," she said, "and right now he doesn't have the state as a partner."
Tim Eller, an administration spokesman, said that the governor has appointed an advisory commission "to review all aspects of higher education ... including affordability and accessibility," as well as make recommendations for "a robust and responsive" system.
For starters, Eller said, the state is moving deadlines for aid applications to accommodate more community college students, who typically decide to enroll much later in the year.
Philadelphia hit hard
On many levels, Philadelphia students are among the hardest hit, as the higher ed cuts are compounded by the School District's budget crisis. Virtually everything that is not directly mandated has been slashed or eliminated, and that includes many college access and support services.
"The challenge when budgetary issues came up was that these services could be seen as an extra," said Karen Campbell, who worked on college access at the District for a dozen years and is now is director of young alumni support at Girard College.
What programs remain are funded almost entirely through federal grants; there are virtually no operating budget dollars devoted to them. For instance, the Office of College and Career Awareness no longer exists.
While declaring his intention to protect school budgets from further reductions next year, Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen said the system's dire financial straits nevertheless will force the elimination of 97 counselor positions. The District had used federal funds to add counselors to schools to reduce their caseload so they could better advise students on course-taking and college applications.