Parents and students have long understood that a college education is an important ladder to opportunity. Those with a college degree earn more than those without and face lower unemployment rates.
Analysis of a massive new database that includes 30 million people released this January, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” goes a step further. It shows, for the first time, how much four-year colleges in Pennsylvania provide a springboard for students from working-class families to become high-income adults.
According to these data, one in five students at Shippensburg University came from low- and middle-income families earning less than $73,500 a year, but rose to the top 40 percent of earners as adults. That’s 1 1/2 times the share at the 10 most elite private colleges in Pennsylvania, a group that includes the University of Pennsylvania, Bucknell and Franklin & Marshall. At these schools, less than one in seven students came from working-class families and reached the top 40 percent of earners as adults.
What’s the secret to the impressive success of Shippensburg University as an engine of upward mobility for working families? In a word, access.
Shippensburg and the other 13 schools in the State System of Higher Education provide more access to working-class families than elite private schools, while still imparting to many the skills that catapult them toward becoming high-income adults.
This is where the news turns sour. Mobility Report Cards track the earnings of college students who in 2014 were in their early 30s. In the time since those kids went to college in the early 2000s, the State System of Higher Education has seen its state funding decline by a third, adjusted for inflation. To make up for this cut, tuition and fees at Shippensburg have risen by 52 percent over this period. Not surprisingly median student debt for students at Shippensburg is up 30 percent since 2000.
If we make the wrong policy choices in the next few years, the news could get worse. The State System of Higher Education has announced the possibility of layoffs at five schools. Shippensburg, while not one the schools facing layoffs, has seen recent declines in enrollment thanks in part to rising tuition.
Thankfully, we have the option of making the right policy choices. To forestall a decline in access to Shippensburg for working families, we need to shore up state support and reduce tuition.
Recently, of course, the state budget deficit for the current fiscal year climbed to $1.2 billion dollars. Corporate tax cuts, pitched as a way to grow revenue and enacted when the economy was stronger and revenues more plentiful, have blown a hole in the state budget and sapped the capacity of lawmakers to make new investments in public higher education.
Given the state’s revenue challenges, expressing verbal support for the State System of Higher Education, as most members of the General Assembly readily do, is not enough. Talk is cheap, but increasing support for Shippensburg and the rest of the State System of Higher Education so that it can lower tuition takes money.
We have estimated that Pennsylvania could raise $2 billion for higher education and other critical needs, while reducing taxes on most Pennsylvanians, by taxing income like dividends and capital gains at a higher rate and lowering taxes on wages, an idea that has been introduced as Senate Bill 555, the Fair Share Tax, this session.
This asks a bit more from those who have benefited the most from past public investments in public higher education, infrastructure, and research — and will benefit again if we find a way to invest in our common future. We could also enact a severance tax on oil and gas extraction to wisely invest the proceeds in the creation of a more sustainable natural resource — a highly-skilled Pennsylvania workforce.
Raising the revenue needed so that Shippensburg and other State System of Higher Education schools can remain “Pennsylvania’s great working-class colleges” should be an idea that has broad bipartisan appeal, especially from members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly who represent areas near those 14 State System campuses.
Mark Price is resident of Carlisle and a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center a think tank in Harrisburg and the author of Pennsylvania’s Great Working-Class Colleges at https://goo.gl/xRnOHd.