Pa. Gov. Targets Education To Close Budget Gap

fromWITF

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett wants to slash state higher education funding in half. Schools say the Republican's proposed cuts would lead to massive tuition hikes, scaled back courses and other changes. Corbett says the colleges and universities are misusing the tax dollars they're receiving.

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Pennsylvania's new Republican Governor Tom Corbett wants to slash state support for 18 colleges and universities in half. Scott Detrow of member station WITF in Harrisburg says it's part of an effort to close a $4 billion deficit without raising taxes.

SCOTT DETROW: Governor Corbett delivered a simple message during his March 8th budget address: Pennsylvania is out of cash.

Governor TOM CORBETT (Republican, Pennsylvania): This budget sorts the must-haves from the nice-to-haves. Some of the cuts were expenditures in the thousands. Some ran into the millions.

DETROW: About half of Corbett's savings would come from lopping $534 million out of funding for 18 colleges and universities. Impacted institutions include big names like Penn State, Pitt and Temple, but also Pennsylvania's 14 smaller State System of Higher Education schools.

Penn State's president, Graham Spanier, says the reduction would lead to tuition hikes, cancelled courses and mass layoffs throughout Penn State's colleges.

Mr. GRAHAM SPANIER (President, Pennsylvania State University): In agriculture alone, we are talking about 440 employees that we would have to lay off under the current budget scenario that is out there. These are not made up numbers. These are not numbers designed to shock people. These are actual projections.

DETROW: Spanier says Penn State might even close down satellite campuses. Reduced funds would have a greater impact at the smaller state system schools, which rely on state money for about 20 percent of their total budgets. Roger Bruszewski, a vice president at Millersville University outside Lancaster, worries his school would have to eliminate critical courses.

Mr. ROGER BRUSZEWSKI (Vice President, Millersville University): I don't see any way that we're going to be able to offer the number and the magnitude of courses and the variety that we've been in the past. Less course availability means students have to take a longer time to get the courses that they need to graduate.

DETROW: Corbett has accused Penn State's Spanier of bluffing - exaggerating the cuts' impact to gain support. When his administration pushes back against the universities, it uses that four-year graduation rate as ammunition, pointing out the fact more students are taking five or six years to graduate. Just 35 percent of Millersville students graduate within four years. At Penn State's main campus, the figure is 62 percent.

Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, says it's evidence the schools are misspending tax dollars, as well as their ever-increasing tuition income.

Mr. CHARLES ZOGBY (Pennsylvania Budget Secretary): Again, I go back to results and performance, what we get for our state dollars. And I think it's very difficult, when you put the money into the institutions, to see exactly what it is that we're getting.

DETROW: College administrators say students are taking longer to graduate because they're working their way through school. Aaron Slagle is in that boat. Sitting on a picnic table near Millersville's football field, the junior philosophy major says he schedules courses around his job.

Mr. AARON SLAGLE (Student, Millersville University): I know some students don't work, but I have to work to be in school. I can't afford it.

DETROW: Slagle's a junior and on track to graduate in four years. He doesn't want to stay in school any longer, but he's worried he might be forced to, if the cuts lead to fewer courses at Millersville.

Mr. SLAGLE: I have plans. I don't plan on being in school I didn't plan on being in school after next year. But it looks like it's a possibility now.

DETROW: Republicans control both the Pennsylvania House and Senate, but while GOP leaders are embracing Corbett's overall budget plan, most are hesitant to publically support the higher education cuts. A new poll shows 67 percent of voters are against slashing funding for colleges and universities. Lawmakers are aiming for a May or June vote on the budget.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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