Penn State

Penn State plans historically low tuition increase, conservative budget

Tulips bloom outside of Old Main on Thursday, May 3, 2012.    Abby Drey
Tulips bloom outside of Old Main on Thursday, May 3, 2012. Abby Drey CDT file photo

Penn State is planning to walk a financial tightrope.

On one side of the ongoing budget discussions in Harrisburg, Gov. Tom Wolf has promised a $49 million increase in funding to the state’s land grant university, an 11 percent bump over last year and far more than President Eric Barron’s appropriation request earlier in the year. Education, at all levels, has been a push since Wolf took office in January.

On the other, the Republican-dominated legislature, steered by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, is proposing a 3 percent increase, with the overall goal of focusing not on education funding, but ending the looming specter of the state’s pension problem, which has a particular impact on school districts.

“We are hopeful when the commonwealth budget is finalized, we will see a restoration of our previous appropriation,” Barron told Penn State’s finance, business and capital planning committee on Thursday.

Hopeful, yes, but the university is not planning to spend any of that extra money just yet.

Barron outlined a proposal that he called conservative. It would not assume more than the Republican minimum offering, which represented an increase while still identifying exactly where additional funds would be directed if approved.

The total budget would come in at $4.903 billion. Of that, 33.6 percent would come from tuition and fees, another 33.6 percent from hospital and clinic revenue, about 14 percent from restricted funds such as research and other grants, 8.6 percent from auxiliary entertainment money such as football games at Beaver Stadium and concerts at the Bryce Jordan Center, and just over 5 percent anticipated from the state’s appropriation.

That would hold tuition to the lowest percentage increase in more than 40 years, according to Barron, at an average of 1.99 percent

University Park students would see the highest increase, of 2.72 percent. Eight campuses (Beaver, DuBois, Fayette, Greater Allegheny, Mont Alto, New Kensington, Shenango and Wilkes-Barre) would see no increase at all. Another eight (Brandywine, Great Valley, Hazleton, Lehigh Valley, Schuylkill, Worthington, York and the online World Campus) would see just a 0.9 percent increase, while five others (Altoona, Abington, Behrend, Berks and Harrisburg) would go up 1.29 percent.

Barron said that tuition is only half the story, with holding the line on fees or eliminating them being just as important. His proposal would freeze the information technology fee for the first time in 20 years.

That positions Penn State well in the small field of commonwealth schools when it comes to increases. Temple, a fellow state-related school, passed a 2.8 percent increase this week. Last week, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education announced a 3.5 percent increase for its member schools, such as Lock Haven, Clarion and Indiana.

It also puts them in the middle of the pack when it comes to the Big Ten. Maryland leads the pack with a 5 percent increase. Michigan and Michigan State also posted higher increases. Nebraska and Minnesota came in slightly below Penn State at 1.7 and 1.5 percent. Six others, however, posted no increase at all.

Barron attributed those holds to state support.

But what happens if the governor wins the budget tug-of-war? The plan calls for increases to economic development, deferred maintenance, planning for more conservative enrollment in case the record applications of recent years slakes, and an attempt to eliminate the IT fee.

The proposal passed unanimously by the committee and will be voted on by the full board at Friday’s public session. The state’s budget is now more than two weeks overdue.