HARRISBURG — Years of flat funding levels from the state have left Penn State in a tough position.
Even a 5 percent increase above last year’s $214 million would still result in a 1 percent increase in Penn State tuition for students in the next school year.
That’s the reality President Rodney Erickson shared with Pennsylvania lawmakers Tuesday, as he testified at the Senate and House appropriations committees about the importance of state financial support and urged them to increase funding.
Erickson told senators that Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposal of $214 million to subsidize tuition would mean an increase of about 3 percent. It’s similar to the tuition increase the university adopted last year, 3.39 percent, which was the lowest, by percentage, in decades.
“We’re working very hard to stay in the same zone we have been in the last two years,” Erickson told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But I have to tell you, it’s getting harder and harder every year because we’re forgoing a number of expenses.”
Penn State has requested $224 million for next year, which is $10 million over last year.
Erickson, who’s retiring in June, ticked off a list of ways the Penn State has adapted to lower funding levels under the Corbett administration.
Penn State has delayed maintenance projects to not have to spend money that could go toward other costs. In the branch campus system, some campuses share faculty and administrators, and the online program provides faculty for some programs.
And the trickle-down effects reach faculty recruiting, as the university may not be able to offer competitive pay as other institutions could.
The 3 percent figure, which Erickson mentioned in response to a question, could fluctuate depending on the level of funding, and the tuition rate must be approved by the board of trustees in July before anything is official.
Not all of Penn State’s campuses can expect a 3 percent increase in tuition rates. One campus in the western part of the state, which Erickson did not identify, would see its tuition rate stay the same. Several others could see increases in the 1 percent to 2 percent range, he said.
“Where appropriations are concerned, we hope the commonwealth will be able to turn the corner this year. We need to say that we are going to make an investment on the part of the people of Pennsylvania, and we need to say we’re going to stick with that until we at least get back to a place where we can keep our tuition increases moderate, keep the doors of opportunity open, and keep higher education affordable in Pennsylvania.
Joining Erickson in Harrisburg were his counterparts from the the University of Pittsburgh and Temple and Lincoln universities.
The picture Erickson painted was not nearly as dire as that painted by colleague Robert Jennings, the president of Lincoln University outside Philadelphia. Jennings told the senators that, with flat funding, his university would have to look at layoffs.
Other points Erickson made during his testimonies include:
• Penn State’s system of branch campuses is “healthy,” as last year’s freshman class was strong and applications for enrollment in 2014-15 are strong, too. Erickson said the university has tailored programs to fit the labor markets of the areas where the campuses are located and, in some cases, campuses share administrators and faculty.
• Erickson was strongly against the notion of some kind of council that would make decisions for Penn State and other universities as a way to improve efficiency and reduce the duplication of services. Erickson said such a move would lead to the “homogenization” of the universities in the state.
• Erickson said he didn’t think raising the tuition for out-of-state students was a way to help offset the tuition of in-state students. He said the university needs to be competitive about those rates.
• Erickson said he was opposed to requiring all university employees to join the state retirement system. He said many faculty members, in particular, choose to join the TIAA-CREF retirement program, and Erickson said not having that option would make the university less competitive in recruiting faculty.