It looks like Penn State is in for a thaw.
In July 2015, the university’s board of trustees was thrilled to pass a last-minute change to the budget that included a piece of history. When the budget came up for a vote, President Eric Barron unveiled a surprise freeze to tuition for in-state students, the first time in decades the cost of attending Pennsylvania’s largest university did not rise.
If things remain the way they were presented to the trustees’ finance committee at Thursday’s meeting at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, that ice will have melted.
The new plan revealed by university budget officer Rachel Smith shows a $5.1 billion operating budget.
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Of that, $1.9 billion — $230.4 million comes from the state’s budget appropriation — passed this month.
However, tuition is another significant chunk of the plan, and after last year’s freeze was followed by months of uncertainty during a nine-month state funding standoff between Republican legislators and the Democratic governor, it appears many Penn State students will have to find a little more money to pay for class this year.
But not a lot. And not all of them. In fact, the proposal laid out for the committee looked a lot like the one on the table the day before Barron switched things up in Monaca last year. The plan calls for no tuition increase at eight of the Commonwealth Campuses — Beaver, DuBois, Fayette, Greater Allegheny, Mont Alto, New Kensington, Shenango and Wilkes-Barre.
For students at the Brandywine, Hazleton, Lehigh Valley, Schuylkill, Worthington Scranton and York, plus the online World Campus, tuition would bump up just 1.25 percent, or about $81. Abington, Altoona, Berks, Erie and Harrisburg costs would go up 1.54 percent, or $105. University Park tuition, already the highest of Penn State’s campuses, would go up 2.29 percent, or $190. The average increase comes to 1.76 percent.
Out-of-state tuition would rise about 3.39 percent.
Those numbers are actually less than last year’s initial proposal, where University Park tuition was slated to go up 2.74 percent, and at that time, the increase was already being called historically low.
The budget and the tuition increase were passed, but not unanimously. Alumni-elected trustee Bill Oldsey continued his push for affordability.
“I remain opposed to an increase,” he said. “You have to be mindful of the fact that we have a student debt ration higher than the national average. There are other alternatives. I wish we investigated them in more detail.”
Smith said the proposed budget did include $20 million in budget reductions. However, increases included $25 million in salary costs; $11.8 million in benefits such as health care and retirement; and $8 million in innovation and thematic priorities that have been identified under the new strategic plan.
In January, Barron spoke about how the budget impasse was hitting those kinds of plans, things like new ways to tackle access and affordability for students and entrepreneurship on and off campus.
One thing will stay frozen, however. Penn State is still holding the line on the information technology fee, something that first happened last year. That fee had gone up every year since it was first implemented. Barron would like to find a way to eliminate it as a separate line item, folding it into the tuition, but a matter of perception keeps that from happening. Smith said that would be viewed as a tuition increase.
The full board will vote on the tuition and budget on Friday.