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It’s pretty tough these days to find good news about the cost of higher education. Tuition, fees and room-and-board charges just keep rising, along with the debts incurred by students of colleges and universities.

But there was a glimmer of hope recently, and it came from Pennsylvania’s State System of High Education, whose board of governors voted unanimously to maintain in-state tuition at $7,716 for the 2019-20 academic year at California University of Pennsylvania and the system’s 13 other universities. It’s the first time in more than two decades that the tuition cost has not increased.

Cindy Shapira, chairwoman of the board of governors, said, “Our mission is clear. These universities exist so that Pennsylvanians across all income levels can access quality higher education, and by holding the line on tuition, we are living up to that mission.”

The bad news, at least for the State System, is that it now has a projected budget hole of about $63 million.

Said Shapira, “The universities are aware that this budget gap cannot be fully funded by students.”

She added that university officials across the system are working to “reduce their cost structures through further implementation of activities that will reduce expenses and avoid costs to the extent possible.”

That was echoed by Cal U. spokeswoman Christine Kindl, who said the university recognizes the need to provide high-quality education while keeping costs affordable for students at all income levels.

“Under President (Geraldine) Jones’ leadership, Cal U. has made extraordinary efforts to rein in costs while maintaining high standards for both academics and student life,” said Kindl. “We are continuing on that path because we know that both the costs and the benefits of higher education have a long-term impact on the lives of our graduates.”

It seems certain that the cost of higher education at Pennsylvania’s state universities is a factor in a decline of enrollment over the past eight years from 112,000 students systemwide to just over 90,000. Nearly 90 percent of the schools’ students come from within the state.

State System Chancellor Dan Greenstein, who recommended the tuition freeze, pointed out that enrollment is falling fastest among students from middle-income families.

“(The board) took a look at how tuition for more than 20 years has steadily risen, and they said, ‘Enough,’” said Greenstein.

Greenstein also noted that a freeze on tuition is not something that is sustainable. It is hoped that broad changes to the structure of the State System can lead to savings and an increase in enrollment.

If the State System is looking for a large increase in support from the state, that’s probably not happening. This year, the State System will receive $477.5 million from the state, up 2% from the 2018-19 figure of $468.1 million. But there was a day when the state bore a much larger share of the burden for higher education. In 1993, the state paid 53% of the State System’s costs. Today, that figure sits at 27%.

So, perhaps while the State System tries to restructure itself and rein in its costs, the state could consider whether it is in the commonwealth’s best interest to increase its support of higher education.

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