Facing Enrollment Declines, Pennsylvania Freezes State University Tuition

Published November 13, 2019

For the first time in 20 years, the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE) is keeping tuition at 14 state-owned universities for the 2019-2020 academic year at the same level as the previous year.

The tuition freeze is only the second in the 36-year history of the PSSHE. Basic undergraduate tuition at state universities remains $7,716 a year, the same as in 2018-2019.

“Students and parents of students are looking for us to lead, and on their behalf, we’ve made the right choice,” Cindy Shapira, chairman of the PSSHE board, stated in a press release on July 10.

Pennsylvania state colleges produce more than 26,000 graduates each year, 95 percent of whom are employed within two years, the PSSHE board states.

“Our mission is clear,” Shapira said. “These universities exist so that Pennsylvanians across all income levels can access quality higher education, and by holding the line on tuition, we are living up to that mission.”

Enrollment at Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities declined from 112,000 students in 2011 to 100,000 in 2018, an 18 percent decrease.

Affordability Problems

Several factors are pressing state institutions to put a hold on price increases, says Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

“There are a few things going on,” Robinson said. “Low public support for universities, national attention on the ever-increasing costs of college, and increasing student debt. A tuition freeze addresses all these concerns.

 “It forces universities to do what they should have been doing all along: looking for ways to be more efficient,” Robinson said. “Tuition freezes are also something of a trend. In particular, Purdue University’s successful freeze has put pressure on other public universities to do the same thing.”

Rapidly Rising Student Debt

Pennsylvania college graduates are one of the most debt-laden groups in the country. The commonwealth has the second-highest average student loan debt in the United States, according to Forbes.com, with the average student in the class of 2017 owing $36,854.

The average in-state tuition and required fees at a government university in the United States was $9,037 for the 2017-2018 academic year, but in Pennsylvania it was $14,534.

“Pennsylvania’s tuition for in-state students is unusually high, and it probably contributes to lower enrollment,” Robinson said. “Why go to an in-state public university if it doesn’t offer significant savings?

“The freeze will likely cause more students to consider Pennsylvania’s public universities than would otherwise,” Robinson said. “But in a state with a declining population of young people, it may not be enough to reverse the enrollment trend.”

Declining Enrollment, Youth Population

“Colleges and universities face a demographic challenge: there are fewer college-aged students than there were just a few years ago,” said Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News. “Nationally, college enrollment in the United States has decreased for eight consecutive years.”

Between the spring semester of 2018 and spring 2019, the national enrollment decline was 1.7 percent, or about 300,000 students.

To improve efficiency in the face of declining enrollment, a RAND Corporation report for the Pennsylvania state Senate published in 2018 recommended closing or merging some of the government universities.

Awakening to Other Options

In addition to debt accrual, high tuition rates, and demographic shifts, many college-age workers are finding jobs that do not require a four-year degree.

“A strong economy and good job prospects draw students away from higher education,” Peterson said. “Many young adults are realizing they don’t need to go to college to get a good job. And many are waking up to the high tuition and debt burden that college poses.

“For years, colleges have increased tuition well above the rate of inflation, packing on highly paid administrators and wooing students with noneducation incentives like luxury dorms, climbing walls and recreational activities, and gourmet dining,” Peterson said. “Pennsylvania is starting to wake up to the fact that college is too expensive to justify its price tag.”

Brandon Best ([email protected]) writes from Cedarville, Ohio.

Internet Info

Jenna A. Robinson, “Here’s What Other Universities Can Learn from Purdue’s Tuition Freeze,” School Reform News, The Heartland Institute, September 25, 2019: https://heartland.org/news-opinion/news/heres-what-other-universities-can-learn-from-purdues-tuition-freeze