By SUSAN JONES
At a legislative hearing earlier this week, members of two state House subcommittees discussed ways to modify how the state-related universities — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — receive funding and how much.
Hari Sastry, Pitt’s chief financial officer, was one of the people testifying on Oct. 4, along with officials from the other universities and from the Penn Veterinary School, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA).
One of the proposals making the rounds in the statehouse is channeling the money state-related universities now receive to the PHEAA to be distributed as grants or vouchers to students to use at the school of their choice, including technical schools, community colleges, PASSHE schools, private colleges and major universities. Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Greensburg) is circulating a memo seeking co-sponsors for a bill creating a college voucher program. Pitt–Greensburg is in Nelson’s district.
In his written testimony, Sastry said that every dollar Pitt receives in general appropriations from the Commonwealth is applied to reducing tuition for Pennsylvania students. “This funding directly and dramatically lowers tuition costs for in-state students,” he said, pointing in particular at the regional campuses which have the largest difference in tuition between in-state and out-of-state students.
Pitt provides $284 million in tuition discounts for Pennsylvania students. The state’s appropriation accounts for around 60 percent of that discount; Pitt makes up the difference.
Sastry said a voucher program would effectively erase the in-state tuition discount at Pitt. “A voucher system would not be nearly enough to offset the loss of the in-state tuition discount for Pennsylvania students, which equals $15,000 for in-state students at Pitt,” he said.
For fiscal year 2022, Pitt received a general appropriation of $152 million from the Commonwealth, which represented about 6 percent of the University’s revenue for the year.
At the hearing, Sastry emphasized that Pitt has had modest tuition increases — averaging 1.6 percent over the past five years — and has invested in several critical initiatives aimed at reducing student debt, including the Pitt Success Pell Match Program introduced in 2019. Currently, Pitt enrolls more than 5,700 students who benefit from Pitt Success, with the average student receiving $5,500 each year from Pitt, doubling their Pell grants.
Sastry and others noted that Pennsylvania’s funding for higher education already ranks among the lowest of all states. “If enacted, this legislation would further erode Pennsylvania’s position in support of higher education,” Sastry said, “and the Commonwealth would be without a major public research institution — making it the only state in the nation to bear this label.”
Sastry also said that the PHEAA grant program disproportionately benefits students at private institutions, “as the full ‘sticker price’ is used to calculate the grant amount even though most private institutions rarely charge students that price.”
Penn State Provost Nick Jones said if the state were to withdraw its funding, Penn State would likely become a private university and it likely would not be able to continue funding many of its 20 regional campuses.
Sastry reiterated this point: “Large private institutions do not have regional campuses, as these campuses are not able to compete effectively at the tuition levels of a private university. The harm to these institutions would be devastating to the regions in which Pitt currently has campuses — Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville.”
Another proposal discussed at the hearing was switching to a funding model that would reward institutions that demonstrate success in certain performance categories.
According to PennLive, representatives from the four state-related institutions and the Penn Veterinary School said they would welcome moving to such a model, provided only a portion of state funding would get distributed this way.
The hearings were convened by Reps. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford/Franklin/Fulton), chairman of House Education Committee’s Subcommittee on Higher Education, and Natalie Mihalek (R-Allegheny/Washington), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Education. Mihalek is a Pitt alum and Commonwealth appointee to Pitt’s Board of Trustees.
A news release from the two lawmakers said that the 2021-22 state budget allocated more than $1.86 billion to support higher education.
“With this much funding being allocated to higher education, it was only appropriate that the state Legislature took a deep dive. Our primary duty is to make sure we are being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Mihalek said. “We want accountability and transparency for the public when we’re talking about five cents of every dollar spent in Pennsylvania. The public deserves to know how this money is being used and how it benefits students.”
On Oct. 5, an email was sent to members of the Pitt community asking them to reach out to state lawmakers to let them know how important state funding is for the University of Pittsburgh.
Find the full hearing here.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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