Our public universities and the affordable, quality education they provide are essential for students in Western Pennsylvania and rural economies. The ongoing overhaul of our state system has been a success, and the Legislature must do its part by investing in it so that students can get jobs here and build lives in our region.
A few years ago, the system, which includes the universities of California, Edinboro, Clarion, Slippery Rock and Indiana, was facing huge, long-standing challenges. Declining enrollment, rising tuition fees, and other issues have threatened its financial viability.
The system had to change, and it had to be strategic and fast. Access to higher education for future generations of students depends on it.
As Chairman of the House Education Committee, I introduced House Bill 2171, which became law (Act 50 of 2020), which brought the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) up to date and rethink. The law has given PASSHE the tools it needs to better manage the system and deliver results to students.
At every stage, the House Appropriations and Education Committees, as a group, closely monitored the progress of the system to ensure that the needs of students and their families were put first in every decision. Change can be difficult, but the system delivers on its promises and works with students, faculty, and communities to find solutions.
Universities have already saved $173 million and frozen tuition fees for an unprecedented three straight years, giving up nearly $60 million in revenue to help students with costs. This is a huge change after years of rising tuition fees.
Students also benefit, as universities work with regional employers to better align university programs with workforce needs. This means that students get more than a degree. They acquire the education, skills and credentials needed for the jobs that are in high demand in our region. Universities also help adults earn degrees to advance their careers or change careers, which is critically important in western Pennsylvania.
We depend on public universities for local students to stay and work here. They are our healthcare workers, our engineers, our teachers, our small business owners and many more. Going to a university in the state system allows students to earn an affordable college degree closer to home and build a rewarding life close to their families while enhancing our local workforce.
These opportunities will only increase thanks to Law 96 of 2021, which will help improve broadband internet access by moving significant broadband dollars through a competitive bidding process. to expedite deployment to our Commonwealth. Pennsylvania is on track to receive at least $100 million and will likely receive significantly more. Soon someone will be able to work for a company in Texas or Colorado from their headquarters in Erie, Venango or other counties in western Pennsylvania. Imagine the possibility of avoiding the commuter gridlock and higher living costs in areas like Dallas or Denver by living here. This is a tremendous opportunity for our region, and universities in the local state system will be essential in educating and re-educating our residents for these jobs.
Public universities are also essential for local economies. As employers, Clarion University is the largest in Clarion County, IUP is the second largest in Indiana County, Slippery Rock is the fifth largest in Butler County, California is the 10th largest in Washington County and Edinboro is the 26th largest in Erie County. These local economies depend on universities and their employers to support local businesses and create jobs.
Our communities depend on these universities, and the system has redesigned itself to better meet student needs and improve its finances. I strongly support PASSHE’s request for state funding, which includes $550 million to maintain the tuition line for a fourth consecutive year; $201 million for student financial assistance, especially important for rural students; and at least $75 million of the remaining $150 million in federal funds earmarked for the state system to continue its robust transformation.
Not everyone wants to go to college, but for students and adults in Western Pennsylvania who want a degree or credential, we need to keep their dreams within reach and protect our economy.
Now is the time for the Legislature to continue investing in our state system universities and their students. Their future and our local economies depend on it.
Representative Curt Sonney represents Erie County’s 4th Legislative District.