It costs a lot of money to send a kid to college.
Eric Barron knows this. He is responsible for about 100,000 of them.
But the Penn State president wants people to understand that the university, often pointed to as an example of out-of-control tuition since it leads the Big Ten as the most expensive public school, is trying to put the brakes on escalation.
On Friday, he talked to his trustees about the package of reductions and reallocations, as well as other funding, that he is using to try to stop the price of a Penn State degree from going higher. It’s something he has talked about regularly at trustees meetings since taking the reins in 2014.
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But, he said, it’s not that easy to arrest two decades of cuts to the amount of money the state contributes to its land-grant university.
“If the state had just kept up with inflation, we could drop tuition 13 percent,” he said.
Instead, Pennsylvania governors and lawmakers have overseen millions in cuts to the amount of money the university received, something that was passed on to students and their parents.
The average cost of a year at University Park is $17,900, without room and board or books. And that’s just for in-state stufdents. Add in a dorm room and a meal plan and you top $30,000 easily.
Pennsylvania is still not sure just how things are going to be funded this year, with the state legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf locking horns again over spending. But Barron still has to pay the bills, and the staff, and do the things that go beyond that.
The thing he wants to do most is “innovation,” even though he acknowledges some of it is less about innovating than it is responding to unfunded mandates. What it is about, really, is new programs.
Some of them, like Invent Penn State or new initiatives to help disadvantaged students get in — and stay in — the door, really are innovative. Others, such as hiring staff to respond to new requirements for reporting and compliance, are the cost of doing business.
Critics like Auditor General Eugene DePasquale say something has to be done. They say the university should cut spending.
Even on Penn State’s own board, trustees bring up tuition when a big project crosses the table. On Friday, trustee Ted Brown expressed reservations over the capital spending plan that laid out a schedule of replacements, repairs and upgrades for the next five years. Others have questioned things like the new dorm facilities at Philadelphia-area campuses that were proposed in 2015. Why spend, they say, when the money could go to tuition?
But Penn State has cut spending, Barron says. In 2017-18, $21 million was saved through reductions and reallocations, bringing the total since 1992 to $403.8 million.
That came through asking university departments to each strip a percent or two from their budgets annually. There were energy savings projects that have saved $62 million since 2003 and $11.8 million in “aggressive energy procurement strategies.” Majors and graduate programs have been discontinued or eliminated from some campuses. The voluntary retirement program this year saw 587 faculty and staff positions turn over at a savings of $14.4 million.
But all that comes at a cost.
Barron points to the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings of universities. Penn State, while still highly rated as a public university at 14th place, fell to 52nd in overall standings.
“Why is that? We have more students to the number of faculty,” he said. “It becomes about whether we want to be able to maintain quality.”
Wolf has said since taking office that he wants to restore the lost funding.
“Gov. Wolf has been consistently strong in support of the state-related institutions, including Penn State. In his budgets, he has even worked to restore past cuts under other administrations,” said press secretary J.J. Abbott.
Penn State has frozen tuition at some campuses for three consecutive years. Tuition at all campuses was historically frozen in the 2015-16 school year, but that happened in July 2015, in the midst of another budget crisis that saw the state go with no funding plan for about nine months.
With no changes to the appropriations, Barron says his next budget could include a 3 percent increase in tuition, and that’s not something he wants to do.
“This university is in the top 1 percent of universities in the world. We don’t want our brightest students to go somewhere else,” Barron said.