Their View: Penn State working to improve access, affordability

As two recent appointees to the Penn State board of trustees, we support the efforts of university President Eric Barron to make the access and affordability of a Penn State education one of his top priorities. It’s an effort that deserves the focus and support of the entire Penn State community and beyond.

When it was recently announced that U.S. News & World Report ranked Penn State’s World Campus the best online bachelor’s program in the nation, it was an important signal that Penn State can improve access to and affordability of a college degree without sacrificing excellence.

Access and affordability has been an ongoing challenge for one of the world’s Top 50 universities, but Barron took another important step in the right direction in January, when he announced a proposal to freeze tuition at eight commonwealth campuses. If approved by the board at our July meeting, it will be an important statement to students at each of those campuses, where many work 20 hours a week or more to help support their educational pursuits.

We welcome and appreciate Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to increase funding to Penn State, which will buoy Barron’s goal of keeping Penn State accessible and affordable, at a time when the university has become known as the second most expensive public school in the nation. We also appreciate the support the university has received from Harrisburg, as the commonwealth has faced annual billion-dollar deficits. Meanwhile, Penn State is playing its part on a number of fronts.

Student debt advising: Barron has made educating students on the need to minimize student debt a keystone in these efforts. Through direct messaging to students, a stronger focus by our college advisers and various course offerings, Penn State is working more closely with students to keep them on track to graduate in four years. In reality, a 3 percent annual tuition increase is small compared to an extra year of tuition. Penn State, which has facilitated the creation of a financial literacy series, also is providing regular updates to students on their loan status and debt to encourage them not to borrow more than they need.

Smart planning: Penn State is employing a long-term vision as it continues to modernize its campuses, where a large proportion of their buildings were built between 1945 and 1970. New buildings and classrooms are being designed to better anticipate future changes and models in education. To accommodate those changes and manage investment, Penn State is installing an experimental classroom at University Park that will serve as a design test-bed to experiment with new and emerging models.

Fundraising partners: Working with our alumni partners and friends, more than 91,000 new individual scholarships and awards were created through the recently concluded, decadelong “For the Future Campaign.” As a result, in 2014, $47 million of student tuition was covered by the generosity of the Penn State community.

Fundraising for student support will be an ongoing focus for Penn State.

Degree channels: University Park, with its 20 commonwealth campuses and World Campus, is creating a unique template in higher education by providing multiple channels to achieve a degree that has been ranked No. 1 by The Wall Street Journal for college graduates who are best suited for the workforce after graduation. World Campus is serving adult students right here in Pennsylvania, as more than 4,000 of the 10,000-plus online students are state residents. In addition, many traditional students attending Penn State’s “brick-and-mortar” campuses take online classes to enrich their studies and to assist them in completing their degree in four years, thus saving thousands of dollars in that last, extra semester.

Several more programs have been implemented with the goal of helping college students graduate on time. Penn State has created two summer sessions of six and 12 credits that provide employment and scholarships for at-risk students, as well as LEAP, which is designed to reduce the time required to earn a degree for students who transfer to University Park.

We can see these efforts are working today through two important indicators of improving access and affordability. Applications to Penn State were at an all-time high last year, and the number of first-generation college students at Penn State continues to increase across all campuses.

Under Barron’s leadership, the university is taking strong action now in what will be a yearslong effort. The goal is to ensure every person with the opportunity to earn a Penn State degree — but never thought they could afford it — not only earns that degree, but also leaves college on sound financial footing and positioned for a successful career.