Despite budget boost to Penn State, room and board charges may still increase

Gov. Tom Wolf has penciled in an extra $49 million for Penn State in his 2015-16 budget proposal. That should make it easy to get everyone on his side going into the first board of trustees meeting with his appointees in place, right?

Not so much. And it all started with room and board.

Associate Vice President of Auxiliary and Business Services Gail Hurley took the board through a presentation on the renovations at South Halls and the plans for similar work at East Halls. But all of that comes with a price tag.

For the 14,000 or so students who live in University Park dorms, that means the room and board rates, and those will go up in 2015-16.

Under the plan, it would increase by 3.89 percent or, for an average room and meal plan, about $190 a semester.

The problem? That’s 2.14 percent more than necessary to keep a college freshman in a bed and with a full plate. That other 1.75 percent is a sticking point for some, like the governor’s non-voting representative, Secretary of Policy and Planning John Hanger.

That extra goes to a fund that will help with future building projects, like East Halls.

Hanger was vocal in his protests, saying the governor was increasing Penn State’s projected appropriation as a commitment to keeping tuition down.

But there, university officials said, was the difference. While the state gives money for the university and another pot of money to offset capital projects, none of that goes to auxiliary services like dorm rooms and food. In fact, specific firewalls are in place to keep those funds from ever overlapping. Capital funds might go to buildings, but they are labs and classrooms. Hurley said they do not go to housing.

“You’re sacrificing the future,” trustee Richard Dandrea said. “That’s not the responsible course.”

“Let’s not pretend,” Hanger said, pushing to have the board find “another way to do it.”

He suggested using fundraising for that money, but President Eric Barron said that would be unlikely to work.

“It’s hard to raise money for bricks and mortar,” he said, adding that giving money to improvements on a building that already has someone else’s name on it would be a hard sell.

What he did give Hanger was a commitment.

“My personal philosophy is to drive tuition down further,” he said.

In Barron’s budget request, he estimated a $9 million increase in the general state appropriation over 2014-15. Barron said that if, in the final budget, the university receives more than his request, he will put the first $1.75 million toward pushing back on tuition.

Barron specifically said after the meeting that he was not holding the governor to the full $49 million increase pledged as the budget still has to go through the General Assembly. Barron will be in Harrisburg next week making his case before the House and Senate appropriations committees.

Hanger said he was “disappointed” with the trustees’ decision, crediting tuition increases and rising room and board charges at universities to “unnecessary building projects,” but added, “We see how important Penn State is.”

The university’s $16,992 tuition has been criticized as one of the highest in the Big Ten, coming in second behind Northwestern’s $46,836. But Barron has said the difference between the Minnesota tuition rate and Penn State’s is the $4,277-a-year subsidy each student receives, far higher than Pennsylvania’s commitment to its land-grant university.

Ironically, the fight that started it all is an area where Penn State is doing well against conference peers, according to a report presented to trustees.

Northwestern still has the most expensive room and board, with a yearly bill of $14,389, but instead of second place, Penn State is in the bottom third of costs, coming in at $9,770, right between Ohio State ($9,830) and Iowa ($9,728). In state, Pitt charges $10,200.