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Penn College Hearing, Addressing Public’s Concerns About Costs

(The following op-ed article written by Dr. Robert E. Dunham, chairman of Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Board of Directors appeared in the Oct. 13 edition of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.)

The media around the country are reflecting the concerns of parents and students about the rising costs of a college education.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that tuition at four-year public colleges is rising faster than family income in 41 states. In the past 10 years, tuition at the nation’s public colleges rose 47 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Hyped-up reports of a national college “cost crisis” have had disastrous effects, as 71 percent of Americans are reported to believe that a college education is not affordable, according to testimony presented at Senate hearings on the subject.

Pennsylvania College of Technology is not immune from such public concern. In fact, with a history steeped in the traditions of the working class, Penn College represents no “ivory tower” thinking on the subject of rising costs and accessibility.

The future of our communities is tied directly to the abilities of the men and women who make the products and provide the services of our economy. None of us can afford to put higher education out of the reach of the working class. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than our campuses, where a majority of first-year students represent the first in their families to seek a college degree.

American families understand how important education beyond high school really is. According to U.S. Department of Education testimony before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs (February 2000), they rank this issue ahead of concerns about violent crimes, health care and public schools. They clearly see the facts beyond the figures as reported by the College Board; those with a college degree earn 81 percent more on average than those with only a high school diploma.

Families who struggle to make ends meet have no difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the $1 million gap in lifetime earnings between a man or woman with a high school diploma and one with a bachelor?s degree.

Why is it that nonprofit colleges, which are not out to make a profit only to balance revenues with expenses find it necessary to raise tuition every year? A Time magazine article, “Reining in the Costs,” quotes American Council on Education President Stanley Ikenberry as saying, “The three biggest costs that colleges must bear are salaries, technology, and library and lab costs – all of which are steeper on average than say food or clothing.”

The article goes on to say that rising parental expectations, about student safety, housing, programs and activities that influence students’ lives inside and outside the classroom also have significant impact on the real costs colleges must pay to attract new students and see them through to graduation.

We see the truth in these observations at Penn College. It is difficult for me to believe now that, just over a decade ago, we did not offer four-year degrees or on-campus housing to our students. The quality of the academic programs has improved substantially, as evidenced by the laudatory report of the recent Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ accreditation review.

The faculty at Penn College are dedicated to their teaching and personal attention given to their students. Our annual budget reflects the real costs of these initiatives. Cutting quality to keep costs down is not a viable option. But we are diligent in keeping costs as low as possible while maintaining quality and also for providing as much student financial aid as possible.

There are two primary sources of funding for the operating budget – the state appropriation and tuition. Penn College receives the lowest appropriation per full-time equivalent student ($2,500) of any public college or university in the Commonwealth. Therefore, you would expect that the tuition increase this year might well be among the highest. You would be wrong.

Actually, through frugal management rather than cuts in quality, Penn College has instituted the lowest tuition increase (3.9 percent) of any public college or university in the Commonwealth. This is compared with the 9 percent increase for the universities in the State System of Higher Education. We also provide financial aid to three out of four students enrolled.

As we look to the future, I can assure you that the Board of Directors and administration of Penn College will continue to emphasize quality, but we will try our best to keep cost increases manageable for future students and their families. By doing this, we hope to maintain the accessibility and affordability of a Penn College education.

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