HARRISBURG — Penn State sophomore John Wortman has a challenge for state lawmakers.
If his fellow students can raise $13 million through the annual dance marathon, Pennsylvania’s senators and representatives surely should be able to come up with much-needed funding for the university.
Wortman and Penn State students from across the state converged Tuesday on the Capitol to impress upon lawmakers that the university needs more than the $214 million Gov. Tom Corbett is proposing to go toward subsidizing in-state tuition. The students had face-to-face meetings with lawmakers and then took to the rotunda for a rally to drive home their message.
“I didn’t come to Penn State because I grew up rich — I came to Penn State because it’s supposed to provide an affordable education to middle-class kids like me,” said Wortman, a secondary education major who helped organize a walk from Old Main to the Capitol over three days.
More than 200 students and alumni participated in the event, and students at the rally shared stories about how important the state funding is to their education.
For instance, graduate student body President Scott Rager told the crowd how he couldn’t afford a Penn State degree for his bachelor’s program. Instead, he spent three years at Slippery Rock University and finished the degree at Penn State.
The buzz in the Capitol on Tuesday was some lawmakers are sympathetic to Penn State’s cause. They’re aware of the need to fund higher education, but they say there are mandates that get the dollars first, such as public pension contributions and Medicaid.
That’s what state Rep. Flo Fabrizio told Penn State Alumni Association President Kay Salvino when he pulled her aside after the rally.
“We’ve got to convince some of our colleagues it’s an investment and not an expense,” Fabrizio, D-Erie, said.
Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, had a similar message when he met with three undergraduates and three graduate students in his office. The students all offered their concerns that could be helped with additional state funding.
“From a business perspective, what you want to do is keep your operating costs as low as possible so you can invest in your future,” Corman said. “State government is no different. ... If we’re not investing, then we’re falling behind.”
Kate Anderson, a doctoral candidate in German, told Corman that the undergraduates she has taught have pride in attending Penn State because they hail from the state. But stagnant funding and rising tuition costs could price them out and “close the door” for them, she said.
Corman told the students that the question of higher education funding is not a “social policy” matter now — it’s a matter of math.
Corman said his high school classmates graduated and got jobs at Penn State. They put in their 35 years of service, and as early as age 53, they retired and starting collected their public pension.
It’s not sustainable anymore for someone to live off a public pension for 20-plus years, he said.
Corman heard pleas for investments in financial literacy, so that students taking out loans at age 18 have a better understanding of the debt, and the university’s counseling program, which the students said is stressed by the need.
“When you factor in the services we do need,” graduate student Jon Lozano said, “we’re just keeping the lights on at Penn State. It’s getting to be a bigger and bigger burden.”
The money from the state, which had been more than $300 million under the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell, has been at the $214 million level during Corbett’s tenure. Penn State takes the pool of money from the state to calculate how much of a discount it can offer to Pennsylvania residents.
A freshman from Pennsylvania will pay $16,090 this year in tuition. An out-of-state freshman will pay $28,664.
The state must pass its budget, including Penn State’s appropriation, by June 30. In July, the university will use that figure to set tuition rates for the upcoming school year.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @Mike DawsonCDT.