College Guide


April 02, 2012 5:52 PM Why Can’t They Fix Higher Education?

By Daniel Luzer

Many state governors, particularly those from the Republican party, have been particularly interested in making serious efforts to reform public higher education. The primary problem, which they’re understandably very eager to correct, is the cost of college. But the reform efforts aren’t going too well.

According to an article by Eric Kelderman in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is the latest in a string of first-term Republican governors to try his hand at a major higher-education reform. If the examples of his peers are any indication, the chances of success are mixed, at best.
Governor Corbett has appointed a committee to advise him on how colleges should be financed and how they could better serve the needs of Pennsylvania’s employers. In addition to insisting that tuition has risen too fast, the governor has questioned whether the state’s four-year colleges are doing enough to improve Pennsylvania’s economy. He argues that Pennsylvania needs to produce more skilled-trade workers, like carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, and fewer schoolteachers.

The trouble is that, like fellow Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada, and Florida, Corbett is discovering that constituents and legislators don’t like the governor’s reform ideas. Kelderman again:

But not everyone agrees about either the nature of the problems or the governor’s solutions. His critics say the rise in tuition is caused by cuts in state money. And, they add, he is selling Pennsylvania’s economy and its citizens short—a 2010 study on the future work-force needs of the 50 states concluded that Pennsylvania will need many more workers with baccalaureate and graduate degrees than with associate degrees or with nondegree training after high school.

Just because people agree something should change doesn’t mean they agree on the changes. Tuition certainly is rising too fast for the students of Pennsylvania to afford. But most people agree that the reason college costs go up is because state support goes down.

Corbett might be right that Pennsylvania needs more skilled-trade workers, but virtually no economists argue that America is really producing too many bachelor’s degree holders. We may not need dramatically more schoolteachers, but we need more professionally-trained workers.

The most fundamental problem here may be that, while the governor’s statements about higher education might be controversial, and not entirely accurate, he’s concerned with the cost of college for a very practical reason; he has budget problems. The economic downturn means that Pennsylvania, like many other states, simply doesn’t have enough revenue coming in to meet all of its needs.

Corbett has to cut costs, or raise taxes, in order keep the state solvent. Higher education is often a tempting place for governors to cut; unlike other obligations, support for higher education is not required by state constitutions.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Snarki, child of Loki on April 02, 2012 10:46 PM:

    We'll just have to see if Corbett manages to survive the backlash...

    Here's the way it works in PA:
    GOP gov suggests slashing higher-ed funding.

    Some of that funding goes to UPenn (private, but 'state-aided'); if Penn State is slashed, UPenn has to be slashed too.

    UPenn then threatens to close the ONE veterinary school in PA.

    Conservitive farmers scream bloody murder.

    GOP gov backs down.

  • FactChecker on April 03, 2012 6:29 PM:

    Snarki's claims are not based in fact. U of Penn is a private school and receives no state funds. Governor Corbett is proposing cutting funds to Pitt, Penn State, and Temple by 30% and the 14 State universities by 20%. This would take the 14 state schools back to 1988-89 funding levels.

  • Anonymous on April 04, 2012 8:59 AM:

    factchecker, great name, needs to check the facts. UPenn takes loads of public dollars.

    some of the PA state taxpayers' money going to UPenn,
    $72.3 million for the vet school ( scroll down to ag section.

    $18M for Penn's biomed center, the Wistar Institute (

    Of course at the federal level, Penn and other private schools can get NIH, NEH, NSF and other major grants. Penn racked up about $577 million in NIH grants alone in 2010.

  • Texas Aggie on April 04, 2012 5:20 PM:

    When my wife was working on her PhD, I took a few summer classes towards a teaching certificate in a PA university near Pittsburgh. The other students were almost completely hopeless. The Ed Psych class passed kids getting 50's in their exams because a significant percent were getting 30 and below. The other classes weren't quite so bad, but still bad enough that you don't want your kids being taught by these people.

    Now these were summer students, so regular students might have been more qualified. But my point is that something needs to be done to improve the level of PA education at all levels. And as an addendum, in case there are any "Murray's Bell Curve" enthusiasts out there, let me mention that in four classes, I had only one African American classmate. All the rest were white.

  • bigtuna on April 10, 2012 4:24 PM:

    Here is another part of the problem ... that pertains to PA, and elsewhere. Many of the types of students we need MORE of cost MORE to educate: Even the trades Corbett talks about probably cost more - carpentry, electricians, etc., cannot be taught with a "Stack em deep teach em cheap" model. Nurses need low faculty-student ratios to do clinicals, trades people need time in shops, then as appretices, etc. Hell - go ask a Toyota repair shop how much time one of the basic mechanics has to go to Toyota school before they can work on your car.

    As for the higher degrees, PA, and the rest of the nation needs people in Engineering, Geology, Geophysics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Biochemisty etc etc etc.. All spendy disciplines that generate good salaries at the other end, but cost more upfront.

    And, because of the decline in the quality of Math and Science ed in the K-12 systems, [due in part to ... budget cuts] we have fewer students interested / able to do those degrees.

    Reform has to come in several forms: shifts of student interests/abilities from less needed degrees [for exa., does one really need a BS in business to work at Enterprise car rental??], to degrees in demand, AND the commitment, long term, of the resources to make that happen, preK to post grad.

    Is sum, we are F***ed.

  • Jay C on April 12, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Gee! What a surprise! A Republican Governor's notions of "higher education reform" boil down to cutting State spending, and suggesting students go to trade schools?

    IOW, a cheap[skate] easy "fix" and screw the consequences....
    Republican "policy" in a nutshell...