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April 2, 2015

College costs major focus of appropriations hearings

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“We are going to do everything we can to hold this tuition increase as low as possible and to do everything we can to maximize the economic returns of the University,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher told the Pennsylvania Senate appropriations committee last week. “It’s really in that spirit that we enter the budget season and we look forward to working with everyone.”

Pitt’s efforts to control education costs include keeping tuition increases below inflation and boosting four-year graduation rates, Gallagher said.

College costs dominated a wide-ranging discussion as leaders of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities testified March 24 in Harrisburg. The annual hearings before the House and Senate appropriations committees are part of the state’s budget process. June 30 is the deadline for the legislature to pass a budget.

New faces dominated the state-related leaders’ panel: Gallagher joined Valerie Harrison, who was named acting president of Lincoln University in November, and Eric Barron, who took the helm at Penn State in May, as newcomers to the budget sessions. Only Neil Theobald, who marked his second anniversary as Temple University president in January, had come before the committees in this capacity before.

As part of a $29.9 billion general fund budget plan for fiscal year 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed additional funding for education, including an increase of nearly $14.92 million for Pitt. (See March 5 University Times.) Wolf’s budget proposal includes a combined $80.9 million increase in support for Pitt and its fellow state-related universities Penn State, Temple and Lincoln; a $15.1 million (7 percent) increase for community colleges and a $45.3 million (11 percent) increase for the State System of Higher Education, all part of a plan to begin restoring education cuts made during his predecessor Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.

Wolf’s plan for additional funding came with a call for Pennsylvania’s community colleges and its 14 State System of Higher Education schools to freeze tuition for the coming academic year.

And, while the state-related universities weren’t included in Wolf’s call for a tuition freeze, leaders of the four schools all emphasized their own institutions’ efforts to minimize students’ financial burdens. Along with their pledges to keep tuition increases to a minimum, the leaders acknowledged that other factors contribute to students’ debt.

Harrison said Lincoln’s board has approved a 2.5 percent tuition increase for the coming academic year. The school has instituted a four-year tuition freeze guarantee that eliminates students’ uncertainly about potential tuition increases. Incoming freshmen will pay the same tuition rate for four years, enabling students and their families to plan and motivating students to graduate on time.

Theobald touted Temple’s “Fly in 4” program, which provides $4,000 a year in grants to students with financial need so they can finish their degrees on time with less student debt, rather than slowing their progress by juggling school and off-campus jobs.

At Penn State, Barron said, “A lot of what we discover for our students in terms of financial literacy and wellness is if they took a full load and didn’t work as long in a minimum-wage job, the net is that they actually borrow less, graduate earlier and become employed in the workplace.

“A lot of this is them understanding that dynamic that if you’re taking 12 credits, you won’t make it in four [years]. And if you’re working three jobs at minimum wage, that isn’t going to equal that extra check that you’ll have to write,” Barron said. “We have a lot of students who have to do a fifth year and a sixth year, and that’s the highest tuition increase that I can imagine.”

Gallagher added that readiness to succeed is an additional factor. “We engage very early in academic counseling,” he said, and students are encouraged to maximize transfer credits or high school advanced-placement credits to cut costs.

He added, “The value of the degree they’re coming out with matters as well.” Being employable upon graduation, rather than struggling with how to apply one’s degree, makes a difference in bearing a student-debt burden of any level, he said.

Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-Doylestown) expressed concern that even if tuition increases are held below inflation, the Wolf budget proposal includes a sales tax expansion that would tax student fees and meal plans.

Quinn said the proposed sales tax increase would raise her daughter’s expenses as a Penn State student by more than $600, equating to an additional 85 hours of work a year at an $8/hour job.

Gallagher pointed out that a holistic view of college costs — beyond just the tuition bill — is needed. “You have to, in the end, look at the full cost of attendance for the students,” he said.

In Senate testimony, he added: “We have to look at the total set of costs that students are incurring whether those are direct and charged by the University or whether they’re incidental costs students are incurring while they’re there: From their perspective, the affordability of education is really all of the costs. We try to manage the ones we can.”

Economic impact

In comments to the House committee, Gallagher touted the role of public research universities in economic development, noting that the state’s budget issues “are much easier to address if the commonwealth is growing and that’s one of the key roles that state-related universities can play.”

The chancellor said: “In addition to providing a world-class education for our students, at Pitt we have been also a critical engine for economic growth, particularly in western Pennsylvania. I believe that role has never been more important than it is today.”

He said the University’s estimated $3.7 billion in economic impact last year understates indirect effects such as attracting businesses that want to locate near the University and the economic activity generated by alumni.

Right-to-know expansion

Sen. John Blake (D-Scranton) asked the university leaders to support Senate Bill 412, a reintroduction of right-to-know legislation that stalled in the House in the last legislative session.

SB412 would expand the amount of information that state-related universities must make public, including salary, budgetary and contract information.

Theobald and Barron expressed concern over releasing detailed faculty salary data.

“My experience of a full-up reporting of salaries is it makes the university spend more money,” said Barron, former president of Florida State University. Florida’s open-records law makes public the state universities’ employee payroll information. “I’m happy to have anybody see any administrative salary,” he said. “My interest is only to protect my faculty from being raided by other institutions.”

In addition to making top faculty vulnerable to other offers, Barron said less-well paid employees expect raises when they see peers are making more money.

Theobald agreed that publishing faculty salaries gives private universities an advantage. “It puts us at a disadvantage in trying to retain the best faculty because those are the faculty that the private universities will go for. We have no idea what their salary structure is; they know exactly what our salary structure is.”

SB412, which was referred to the Senate state government committee Feb. 5, would require state-related institutions with more than 2,500 employees to release the salaries of their top 200 employees who are not officers or directors, with faculty members’ salaries presented in unspecified “ranges.”

Barron indicated support for the proposal to limit disclosure to the highest paid and express pay in ranges, adding, “I appreciate the idea of working closely because I think we would be very responsive in talking about any limitations or unintended consequences” of the bill.

Gallagher added his appreciation for the legislators’ willingness to work to address the institutions’ concerns. “This is one of the issues where it’s mom and apple pie, such a clear public good, and yet the downsides are all in the details,” he said.  “You’ve been very accommodating,” Gallagher told Blake. “With that, our support is there.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow