Regional public universities open doors to American dream

This past weekend I found myself in the middle of a social media frenzy. It started when Dr. Phil gave an interview to People.com regarding the current college admissions scandal. In explaining his take on the situation, Dr. Phil opined that the accused parents weren’t really shopping for an education, but rather they were looking for status. He noted, “They don’t want to say, ‘My kid’s going to the junior college.’ They want to say, ‘My kid’s going to Harvard; my kid’s going to USC or Yale.’ I think it’s bragging rights for them and they don’t want to be the one parent that says, ‘Well, yeah, my kid’s going to, like, Slippery Rock.’”

Well, that toss-away comment about Slippery Rock University set off a firestorm of tweets and Facebook posts in support of SRU. To his credit, by Sunday, Dr. Phil had owned up to his mistake and there are no hard feelings. Still, this exchange underscored the need to highlight the important role regional public education plays for students across the country as well as in our commonwealth. While flagship research institutions and elite private schools often capture the headlines, the small publics offer the greatest opportunity for the children of working families.

For example, roughly one third of SRU’s undergraduates are the first in their family to go to college. Similarly, about a third demonstrate significant financial need. This despite the fact that, with tuition and mandatory fees at less than $11,000 per year, SRU remains one of the most affordable four-year colleges in the region. Nearly 90 percent of our students are Pennsylvania residents. Of those, 35 percent of undergraduates receive Pell grants, which go to low-income families.

Unfortunately, with Pennsylvania state support for higher education near the bottom of the nation, SRU’s priority on affordability is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. According to data published by Illinois State University, at $137 per capita, Pennsylvania ranks 48th in the nation for state support of higher education. The national average is about $280 per capita.

Education is our nation’s single most important means of improving individual economic mobility. It is also a great investment for the state. For every $1 of state investment, the 14 Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education universities generate $11 in economic impact. That’s a total of $6.7 billion in annual economic and employment impact, or an average of $300 million per university. As such, SRU and other PASSHE institutions are the backbone of the commonwealth’s economic engine.

At PASSHE universities, students can secure an education that will change the trajectory of their lives. Within 18 to 24 months of graduation, 95 percent of alumni are employed or pursuing a post-bac program; 88 percent are working in their field of study; and 77 percent are working in Pennsylvania. Those working earn a median salary of $45,000.

We are accessible and affordable. Of the more than 92,000+ bachelor’s degrees conferred in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 21 percent (1 in 5) are awarded by PASSHE schools, making it the number one producer of bachelor’s degrees in the state. In 2018-19 the total price of attendance is $5,000 less than state-related universities.

Slippery Rock University and the other PASSHE universities enrich the lives of our students and increase their lifetime income. We benefit taxpayers by generating increased tax revenues from an enlarged economy and reducing the demand for taxpayer-supported social services. Surely our outcomes merit more investment.

We are the “engines” that do, even without the spotlight.

William Behre is the 17th president of Slippery Rock University. He can be reached at president@sru.edu.