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How the pandemic is imperiling a working-class college

In April, after the economic effects of COVID-19 became apparent, officials at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said all 14 of its campuses, including IUP, would have to immediately and sharply curtail expenses.

December 28, 2020 / 11:25 PM IST
Rachel Foor, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania pursuing journalism, at her uncle's home in Breezewood, Pa. on Oct. 23, 2020. (PC-The New York Times/Sarah Blesener)

Rachel Foor, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania pursuing journalism, at her uncle's home in Breezewood, Pa. on Oct. 23, 2020. (PC-The New York Times/Sarah Blesener)

Rachel Foor’s grandparents are in their 70s, so when the pandemic hit, its stresses gave her such stomach pains that she could not eat or sleep. She worried she would infect them if she brought the coronavirus home from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she is a senior, or from Walmart, where she stocks milk and eggs to help pay tuition.

“I went to see Dr. Papakie,” Foor, 24, said.

Michele Papakie, chair of the journalism and public relations department at IUP, regularly counsels students who get pregnant unexpectedly, feel suicidal or are just overwhelmed. She keeps a box of tissues at a table that faces her office desk.

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This personal interaction is the essence of a school like IUP, a medium-sized regional state campus in western Pennsylvania. Universities like this one educate huge swaths of the American public — an experience widely shown to move people into the middle class.

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Papakie, 52, knew firsthand the challenges of struggling college students from her own hilly life’s climb. She was a first-generation graduate herself, her schooling interrupted for several years by a pregnancy before she finished her bachelor’s degree, getting a master’s and doctorate to boot.

Yes, things will turn out OK, Papakie assured Foor.

But for Papakie and many colleagues, things would not be OK.

What happened next revealed the severe challenges facing IUP and less-affluent public colleges like it nationwide. In April, after the economic effects of COVID-19 became apparent, officials at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said all 14 of its campuses, including IUP, would have to immediately and sharply curtail expenses. (The system does not include flagship universities like Penn State and Temple University, which are known as state-related schools.)

At IUP, the prospect of major cuts in programs and faculty loomed, threatening the precious bonds between teachers and students as well as the economic ties between the community and its largest employer.

It is a wrenching saga, but not an isolated one, as dozens of schools across the country are considering deep budget cuts. Nor does it come as a surprise. The pandemic is only the latest assault after more than a decade of financial hits on these schools.

Resources got gobbled a decade ago when millions were spent on fancy amenities, like new dorms and conference halls; then enrollment abruptly fell nationwide as demographics shifted, cutting income. But the chief blow came as states slashed support for higher education.

After years of Republican-led pressure to reduce state spending, Pennsylvania gives nearly 34% less support per pupil now than it did in 2008, forcing students to pay a growing amount of tuition. This has further discouraged enrollment, causing a downward financial spiral, experts say. Now the pandemic has jolted the system.

“This is a story that’s going to be playing out in much of the country over much of the next decade,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of education at Seton Hall University. “The pandemic cost them their runway. Their ability to make some of the more thoughtful changes — that’s gone.”

All this comes as states rely on regional public schools as economic drivers. In Pennsylvania, about 60% of jobs require some postsecondary education, but only 47% of adults have such a degree.

Foor is struggling to join their ranks.

One Rung at a Time

Foor’s mother left the family when she was 4. Her father, Michael Foor, dropped out of college at the Altoona campus of Penn State to raise her and her older brother.

He moved to Breezewood, Pennsylvania, a turnpike town near Maryland and West Virginia, where he worked as a waiter and cashier, or took odd jobs. Sometimes he turned to welfare and unemployment, food stamps and food banks. Rachel Foor pitched in, starting at the age of 14, working at Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s.

“I saw the middle-aged people working there and I thought, ‘If I don’t go to college, that’s going to be me,’” she said.

“I don’t think how I grew up is necessarily a bad thing,” she continued. “It taught me the value of a dollar and what it means to work hard and I never look down on another person. But college is the light at the end of the tunnel that will make everything OK.”

Though all colleges can elevate the economic status of their graduates, regional state schools like IUP can have a profound effect on the lives of their students, who typically lack the kind of family financial support or access to professional networks enjoyed by many students at elite universities.

For poorer students “the mentoring is extremely important — writing letters of recommendation, and reaching out to various communities,” said Terry Madonna, director for the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the architects of the Pennsylvania State System, he said that much of the success for the students depends on a deep relationship with teachers.

A person who gets a degree from IUP is likely to see his or her annual salary rise from $33,000 at the time of graduation to $89,000 over 14 years, according to Edmit, which publishes cost-benefit analyses for universities.

Papakie was a product of that same system.

After she got pregnant her junior year at IUP, she dropped out to raise her son, and then went on to graduate in 1993, get a master's degree from the California University of Pennsylvania in 1996, and obtain her doctorate in communications from Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. She served the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police as an information officer, then the California campus of the Pennsylvania state system as a spokesperson.

She came to IUP in 2007, with her tenure briefly interrupted so she could serve as a lieutenant colonel in Afghanistan in 2010, overseeing sexual assault prevention programs for the 101st Airborne Division. (Since 1987, she had been in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.)

Papakie “is probably the main reason I joined journalism,” said Emily Loose, a 22-year-old senior who in January is set to become her family’s first college graduate. Loose said she loved her budding career, including internships with the college radio station that have made her a hit back in Williamsburg, the small town where her family struggled with money and she graduated in a high school class of 12.

“I didn’t think I had what it took,” she said. “When I thought of college students, I thought of, y’know, rich people.”

Papakie’s relationship is not just with the students, but also with the town of Indiana. Among other activities, she has served as president of the Indiana County Association of Township Supervisors and volunteered at the Alice Paul House domestic violence shelter.

“Often, these public universities are not just education anchors but the largest employer in the region with the highest salaries for staff and faculty and they go to the local inn or the restaurants,” said Vivekanand Jayakumar, associate professor of economics at the Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.

“You can really decimate Midwestern and Northeastern towns if a school disappears or gets cut back dramatically.”

It Was a Wonderful Life

Before there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at IUP, there had been an outbreak of Steinway pianos.

Ninety uprights, grands and other Steinways started showing up in rehearsal rooms and recital halls after a 2006 agreement between the school and the piano-maker. Cost: $2.6 million.

Around the same time, nearly $250 million was invested in new dorms. “Suite-style housing — that’s what college students of today are looking for,” said Tony Atwater, the university’s president at the time. IUP also broke ground on the 148,500-square-foot Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex, which cost more than $50 million.

It was a heady time for IUP, just before the 2008 recession, when enrollment soared here and nationwide. Schools invested.

“They got into this competition to offer better amenities — and to try to compete with state flagship universities,” Jayakumar said. “They spent on Steinway pianos and rock-climbing walls.”

It felt like gravy for a town with a population of 13,000, known for the college and its most famous son, Jimmy Stewart. A bronze statue of the actor stands in the middle of the quaint downtown.

To some at the college, the investments were ill-advised because enrollment trends seemed poised to fall, partly because of falling birthrates years before. That meant resources would become more precious.

“The faculty was yelling up and down, ‘This is not a good idea,’” said Jamie Martin, a professor of criminology at IUP and the head of the union representing the faculty for all 14 schools in the state system. “You could see the demographics coming.”

Nationwide, higher-education enrollment, which had climbed steadily since 2000, peaked in 2010 at 18.1 million and then fell steadily, to 16.6 million in 2018. IUP’s enrollment dropped from a high of around 15,600 in 2012 to 10,600 at the start of the 2019-20 school year.

But it was not just changing demographics. Students were also dissuaded by rising tuition costs, according to a presentation the system made to state legislators.

When the 2008 recession hit, many states slashed the budgets for regional campuses of state schools. From that point through 2018, Pennsylvania’s funding per student for higher education fell 33.8%, among the steepest declines in the country. In inflation-adjusted terms, the state gives these schools about $220 million less annually than it did in 2000-01.

To make up the difference, base tuition rose steadily beyond the cost of inflation: to $7,716 in 2018-19 from $5,358 in 2008-09.

In a nutshell, the burden for supporting the system shifted sharply — from the state to the student. In the 1980s, the state paid 75% of a student’s load. Now the student pays nearly 75%.

In Pennsylvania, the average student debt taken on by graduates of state schools rose 35% between 2011 and 2018. Foor owes $65,000 in loans, and she has not yet graduated.

Tuition is only about half the cost of attending one of the system’s 14 schools. At IUP, the new dorms led to a stiff hike for residents; the old dorms in 2007-08 cost a student $1,670 per semester, while the new suites ranged in cost from $3,000 to nearly $4,000 per semester.

By last year, the cost for the least-expensive living situation, least-expensive meal plan and tuition exceeded $21,000 a year.

Then came the pandemic.

A Battle Over Budgets

Just before the outbreak, in October 2019, the Pennsylvania state system embarked on a path to cut $250 million in annual spending over five years. The plan was that a “system redesign” allowing campuses to share administration, build online programs and put technology to work would save money.

When COVID-19 arrived, the state system initially projected that it would take at least a $52 million hit, chiefly from lost tuition and refunds to students, though $39 million from the federal CARES Act would soften the blow. (Later projections would show an even greater financial hit).

“We were challenged financially before the pandemic, seriously challenged before the pandemic,” the system’s chancellor, Dan Greenstein, said on a Zoom call with the system’s Board of Governors. He added: “We have an obligation to address those challenges more urgently now — and at a more accelerated rate.”

The eventual cuts included one particularly contentious item: the number of teachers.

The faculty union, which is run by Martin, was scrambling to understand the situation, to little avail. “I’d go to meetings and I felt like they’d put a blindfold on me, spin me around and say ‘Pin the tail on the donkey,’ and then move the donkey,” Martin said. “We keep asking: What is the endgame?”

The budget numbers tell a complex story. By some measures, the system is not particularly unhealthy.

For 2019, the last fiscal year available, the entire system lost just $1 million, out of $1.6 billion in expenses. Depending on the accounting method used, IUP itself might have made money, according to a union official.

The union official called the dire budget “a made-up financial crisis.” But the system administration said there was a bigger issue: troubling trend lines for the school. It projected a loss of $48 million for the current fiscal year.

“The data show for some time declining enrollment, lagging state investment, tuition raises and reliance on cash reserves to balance budgets,” David Pidgeon, a spokesperson for the system, wrote in an email. “And we’re looking at more than just one year.”

He said a big part of the problem was that students were bearing a growing cost.

“We have a lot of work to do to recapture our competitive pricing edge while maintaining and even improving the quality of the education,” he wrote. “There’s no more road to kick the can down. The urgency is now.”

Over the summer, the schools scrambled to come up with plans for cuts.

Autumn came quickly, and with cruelty.

In mid-October, Papakie drove to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Indiana to listen to a Zoom call organized by IUP’s dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

A few minutes into the call, the dean abruptly announced the plans: Six colleges would be eliminated as stand-alone divisions, including the one he leads. Among other changes, journalism would either merge with communications or be discontinued.

“Which is it?” Papakie said she asked him.

“Discontinued,” the dean replied.

The grim details dribbled out in the days to come. IUP would lose 128 faculty positions, or 15% of its full-time instructors — 81 through layoffs and the rest through attrition.

On Oct. 29, Papakie got official notice that she would be laid off: “Effective close of business, June 4, 2021, you will be retrenched from your faculty position.”

“My heart is broken,” Papakie said. “I’m not crying because I’ll be unemployed in May. What I care about is these kids who entrusted us.”

(Authors: Matt Richtel and Sarah Blesener)/(c.2020 The New York Times Company)

New York Times