Every single one of our public safety nets and goods could wind up on the chopping block as the present administration slashes budgets left and right. The state-funded schools, the thirteen of which comprise the PASSHE system, look like they may be up next. Rumors of merging many of Western PA’s smaller state schools into one big university have been circulating online, and concerns over new pricing structures have many young people concerned about the affordability of college. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, for example, plans to shift to a “pay by credit” system rather than one blanket tuition cost with free credits given to students with high GPAs.

The issue here, especially for students in and around Pittsburgh and Western PA, is one of accessibility. For many blue-collar working class families, it’s difficult for young members to grow up and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that plagues so many, but a four-year degree is a huge stepping stone in the journey.

For the five state universities in Western PA — California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana, and Slippery Rock — nearly a quarter of the student population come from families earning less than $73,500 per annum. Those students, though, now inhabit the 40% top wage earners for adults in the US. Contrast this against those who break through poverty from private institutions in PA — only about one in seven. State college is unarguably an invaluable asset to Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania at large for hoisting the next generation of wage earners into the next tax bracket and providing them with more opportunities than were presented to their parents.

And yet, in the past five years, funding for PASSHE schools has dipped by nearly a third. Despite frequent bipartisan rally cries for more financial support from the state to run these schools, the funding has failed to come through.

Especially for students whose test scores would put them at the top of the bell-curve for incoming college classes, state school allows more “average” students to complete degrees in STEM. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the phenomenon in his most recent book, David and Goliath. Finances aside, average students tend to complete STEM degrees at higher rates at “average” schools.

In his elegant study of how many students graduate with STEM degrees, Gladwell took a state university in upstate New York and Harvard and divided each incoming class of declared STEM majors into thirds by their SAT Math score. In both universities, the percentages of the thirds who graduated with STEM degrees was the same. That is, about half of the top third of SAT Math scores graduated with stem degrees, about a quarter of the middle third, and loosely 15% of the bottom third. Naturally, the top third of Harvard scored upwards of 200 points higher than the top third of a humble state school in New York — this means that for a student with a very average math score, that student’s chances of earning a STEM degree more than double if they attend a “worse” university, surrounded by other students closer to their level.

If we want to improve the lives of those in and around Pittsburgh, we have to ensure adequate financial access to PASSHE schools. All the data indicate that the PASSHE schools are crucial and phenomenal at bettering the lives of blue-collar young adults.