HARRISBURG, Pa. – As he asked a high-powered panel to help him chart the future of higher education in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday avoided any mention of the deep spending cuts he has advocated for the 18 state-supported universities in each of his first two years in office.
Instead, he emphasized the value of trade schools and the potential of online instruction in preparing young people for jobs.
“In some respects, I think we might need to go back to the future,” Corbett said in a brief speech at the first meeting of his 31-member Advisory Commission on Postsecondary Education, which includes the presidents of several of the state’s largest universities and representatives of private colleges, community colleges, technical schools, businesses and law firms.
But asked about the cuts at an impromptu news briefing after his speech, the Republican governor challenged critics of his plan to suggest alternative measures to balance the budget.
Corbett’s proposal would cut aid for three “state-related” universities—Penn State, Pitt and Temple—by about 30 percent and reduce spending for the 14 state-owned universities in the State System of Higher Education by 20 percent for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The “state-related” schools have a long history of receiving taxpayer money, but are not owned or controlled by the state.
“We are reducing the funding to education because we do not have the money. It is that simple,” he said.
Corbett also questioned where the state would find more money.
“Where would you have me take it from? Would you have me take it from the social services? Would you have me take it from law enforcement? … I’ve said I’m not going to raise taxes. We’re not going to raise taxes, and I think the vast majority of the people of Pennsylvania agree with that.”
University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, speaking after Corbett had left the building as the panelists introduced themselves, warned that chronic underfunding could push higher education toward “a danger zone.”
“By almost any comparative standard of measure, investments in higher education in Pennsylvania lag markedly behind those in other states,” he said.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson, who is also a member of the panel, said “the grand challenge for higher education” is to deliver better education while holding cost increases to levels lower than those of the past one or two decades.
“I believe we’re going to have a significantly different higher-education sector in the next 10 to 20 years,” one that is more globally oriented, he said.
Corbett told reporters that he views the commission’s charge as broader than the question of state funding.
“This is a blank slate for them as far as I’m concerned,” he told reporters after his speech. “The types of education, the methods of education, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all on the table for (panelists) to make some observations, pronouncements.”
The panel is scheduled to make its final recommendations by Nov. 15.
Its director, Rob Wonderling, said the panel will meet again in April and hold four public sessions around the state during the summer.
Wonderling, a former state senator, is president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.