Pennsylvania's Great Working-Class Colleges

Publication Date: 
April 24, 2017

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Executive Summary

As a group, the 14 schools that make up Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education (hereafter the State System) are among Pennsylvania’s great working-class colleges. Forty-one percent of State System students from 1999 to 2004 (far enough back that we can analyze how these students fare economically as adults in their thirties) came from families with incomes (pre-tax income at the household level) in the bottom 60% of households, those earning less than $73,500 a year (in 2015 dollars). By comparison, just 18% of the students from Pennsylvania’s 10 most elite private colleges during this period came from bottom 60% families. 

Because of the State System’s greater access for working families, its mobility rate – defined here as the share of all students who come from the bottom 60% of families AND then move into the top 40% of earners (total pre-tax individual earnings) as adults in their early thirties – is 22%, compared to just 14% for the top 10 elite private colleges.

Ordered from highest to lowest, the mobility rate at each of the State System schools is 29% at Cheyney University, 26% at Mansfield University, 25% at California University, 25% at Lock Haven University, 24% at Slippery Rock University, 24% at Indiana University, 23% at Clarion University, 23% at East Stroudsburg University, 22% at Bloomsburg University, 21% at Edinboro University, 21% at Shippensburg University, 19% at Millersville University, 18% at Kutztown University, and 18% at West Chester University.

Considered as a group, public colleges, including the State System, account for more than half (59%) of the total number of mobility “success stories” among Pennsylvania college students in 2002-04 – more than half the cases in which Pennsylvania college students from a bottom 60% family moved into the top 40% of earners as adults.

The power of public colleges like the State System to catapult working-class students into high-income jobs is under threat as a one third (32%) cut in inflation-adjusted state funding from 2000-01 to 2013-14 fueled an increase in inflation-adjusted tuition of 48% over the same period. This rising tuition has already reduced the flow of students from working families into the State System – 35% of the class of 2013 came from the bottom 60% families, down from 41% in the class of 2002.

Facing enrollment declines and budget pressures, the State System has warned of layoffs at the five schools with the largest share of enrollment coming from the bottom 60% of families: Cheyney (82% from bottom 60% of families), Mansfield (53%), California (50%), Clarion (48%), and Edinboro (48%). These schools draw the highest shares of students from working families because they draw heavily from rural regions or minority groups that have lower incomes on average. If these schools closed, the mobility rate for the State System as whole would fall further.

The State System should not abandon its historic mission as an engine of upward mobility by shrinking campuses most important to rural and urban working families. We will demonstrate in this and subsequent briefs that such a retreat would narrow access to economic opportunity for individual families and harm the economic regions within which most State System schools are embedded. In future work, we will explore in detail affordable ways of restoring access for working families to public colleges by better leveraging federal funds, investing state funds raised in fair ways, and reinvigorating the commitment of State System schools to serve working families in their regions.

Reversing the decline in access to the State System will require new state revenues for public higher education in Pennsylvania. We have proposed that the state could raise at least $2 billion in new revenues to support increased state funding for higher education and other state priorities through a plan that raises 88% of the revenue from the top 20% of families (those making more than $104,000). In Pennsylvania, working families currently pay 30% more of their income in state and local taxes than the top 20% of families. Therefore, our proposal would raise most of its revenue from families who bear a much lighter tax burden and have benefited most from economic growth and past investments in public goods such as public higher education. Dedicating a portion of this revenue to fund increased state investment in public higher education, an institution which is an engine of upward mobility for working families, is a smart investment of public dollars.

The rest of this brief establishes the historic importance of State System schools to working families and the critical need to change course so that the State System and public universities remain “Pennsylvania’s Great Working-Class Colleges”

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