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December 6, 2001

ADMISSIONS AT PITT: The news is good, as the quantity and quality of applicants continues to rise

Pitt could raise tuition next fall by 10-15 percent — or even more — and still recruit a freshman class equal to this year's in terms of academic quality, diversity and sheer numbers.

But only if public colleges and universities nationwide raised their tuitions by about the same percentage.

Betsy Porter, director of Admissions and Financial Aid for the Pittsburgh campus, offered that assessment at a recent meeting of the University Senate's budget policies committee (BPC).

"On the other hand, it would be hard to increase the University of Pittsburgh's tuition by 10 percent if Penn State increased its tuition by 2.5 percent," she added. "That would be hard politically and it would be hard to sell to the public."

Pitt's tuition increase of 7.5 percent this fall was the largest here in 13 years, and more than double the Consumer Price Index inflation rate.

But Pitt's hike was slightly lower percentage-wise, though not in dollars, than this year's national average of tuition increases (7.7 percent) among public colleges and universities.

State budget cuts and stingy appropriations for higher education were blamed for hefty tuition hikes across the country, including in Pennsylvania. State lawmakers increased Pitt's appropriation by just 0.6 percent this year, compared with annual increases of 3-4 percent during most of the last decade.

Porter repeated Chancellor Mark Nordenberg's recent warning that Pitt's state appropriation for next year may fall well short of the $186.1 million the University has requested. Based on that request, which would be 4.3 percent more than Pitt's current base appropriation, the University administration pledged to limit next fall's tuition increase for in-state undergraduates to 4 percent.

"Even before Sept. 11," Porter said, "there were signs that Pennsylvania was backing away from [funding increases for] state-related institutions and even the state-owned universities. But given the Sept. 11 backdrop and other, higher priority issues that will utilize state resources, we can expect to have some pretty difficult years ahead."

A "very strong position" in the marketplace

Fortunately, Pitt enjoys "a very strong position" in the higher education marketplace, according to Porter.

"The fact is that, for a Pennsylvania student, our tuition for a research university is very reasonable when compared to tuition rates at other institutions with which we compete," Porter argued. See story on page 7. Of Pitt's current freshmen, 83 percent are from Pennsylvania.

Recruiting students from outside Pennsylvania could become problematic, however, if high tuition increases continue here, Porter cautioned.

For one thing, Pitt out-of-state students don't qualify for PHEAA grants from Pennsylvania and can't bring similar grants to Pitt from their home states, limiting their main aid sources to federal loans and grants and Pitt grants and scholarships.

Among the nine universities that Pitt considers to be its major competitors, three — the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech — charge lower out-of-state tuition than Pitt does. So do public universities in other states where Pitt has begun recruiting.

Add up Pitt's annual out-of-state tuition for College of Arts and Sciences students ($15,100 currently), room and board, fees, book and transportation costs and miscellaneous expenses, and a typical non-Pennsylvanian receiving no financial aid would have to spend about $100,000 to attend Pitt for four years.

A growing

financial aid budget Porter complained that news media reports of Pitt's 7.5 percent tuition hike this fall tended to overlook the fact that the University increased its financial aid budget by the same percentage.

Thanks to this year's increases of $350 in the maximum state PHEAA grant and $100 in the maximum federal Pell grant, Pennsylvanians who qualify as "full-need" students at Pitt are receiving an additional $450 in aid this year, more than enough to cover the University's 7.5 percent tuition hike even without additional aid from Pitt, said Porter.

Pitt has increased its budget for grants and scholarships at a rate higher than the national average — from $14.4 million during the 1998-99 academic year to a projected $20.6 million this year.

"This has all been to fund a fairly aggressive, academic merit-based scholarship program, which has now reached its peak," Porter said. Pitt now is enrolling "significant numbers" of students whose family incomes are high enough that they can afford to attend Pitt without scholarship aid, she said.

"We've reached the end of the line in increasing scholarship resources to improve the quality of the class. Now what we have to do is take advantage of our name recognition, our institutional quality and begin to attract students who are willing to pay the full price.

"Even though there has been a significant increase in dollars to support merit-based scholarships," Porter pointed out, "the vast majority of the institutional money that we provide is based on need" — $57 million this year.

Students whose family incomes exceed government "demonstrated financial need" limits, but who still need financial help, can benefit from a new type of federal loan: unsubsidized Stafford student loans.

Under the regular Stafford loans program, qualified students can borrow up to $2,625 for their freshman year, $3,500 as sophomores and $5,500 per year as juniors, seniors and fifth-year undergraduates.

"Even with that, there's sometimes a gap between what families can pay and the student's total bill," Porter said. "To help meet that need, the government has created the unsubsidized Stafford loan program. Repayment is only on the interest, not the principal, until after graduation."

Loans have played an increasing part in Pitt's financial aid system over the last 20 years, as they have nationally. Federal loans now represent 55 percent of all available student aid nationally, and 52 percent of aid provided through Pitt, Porter said.

A demographic "sweet spot"

Demographically, Pitt is in "a sweet spot," Porter said. "There are more kids going to college, more kids graduating from high school."

One demographic trend that may not continue much longer is the disproportionately high number of female undergraduates. Fifty-five percent of Pitt's fall 2001 freshmen are women, about the national average.

Porter explained: "There have been more female students going to college because many male students, even some of the better students, were being siphoned off by the dot-com firms that offered very attractive starting salaries even to high school graduates."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 8

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