Should Funding Attach to Students in Higher Education?

Who should have control over higher education funding – the schools or their students? That is the question being increasingly asked in a debate that is reminiscent of the one being waged over vouchers in K-12 schools.

The volume of the debate is getting louder, especially in Pennsylvania where Republican lawmakers are looking at ways to tie the state's higher education budget to students, giving them more freedom to choose a school that fits them best.

This year, Pennsylvania plans to spend more than $500 million on the four so-called "state-related" universities — Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln — and another $412 million on the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a collection of 14 smaller schools scattered around the state.

At the same time, the state is spending $361 million on student aid that is handled by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, or PHEAA, which oversees student grants and scholarships.

Since the state spends money in both ways, it's logical to ask which way is more effective in delivering quality education to students. Asking this very question was State Senator Mike Folmer – a Republican from Lebanon and the chairman of the Senate Education Committee – when the heads of the four largest state-supported universities came to testify about the budget bill. Specifically, they were asked to speculate what would change if the higher education funding was tied entirely to the student and not to the school.

Unsurprisingly, the administrators didn't look kindly on the funding change, saying that allowing the money to follow the student would "undermine the system and compromise its quality." Putting the higher education funding on a less firm ground would serve the weaken the pubic universities and thus close an avenue that many lower-income students rely on to obtain a college degree.

But Folmer says it is an idea that should be considered, particularly as the state budget is squeezed.

"I understand the needs of the universities," Folmer said. "But we have to remember that those dollars come from taxpayers and we have to find the best way to spend them."

Meanwhile, the costs of higher education keep increasing.

The state system is expecting a 2.8 percent tuition increase next year in their budget proposal, Garland said.

Although the issue is not expected to take center stage this year, the fact that it is being brought up at all serves as an indication of what is to come in the future of higher education reform.

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