Pennsylvania colleges want larger slice of state budget to grow, survive
Pennsylvania's budget-tightening mode has sent college officials scrambling to justify why state lawmakers should be prioritizing funding requests for higher education.
At stake are steeper-than-planned tuition hikes, fewer financial aid options and the scaling down of extension programs that enroll students in all 67 counties statewide.
Gridlock over resolving the state's broader budget challenges threatens higher education on two major fronts: lackluster support for a proposed $73.1 million increase to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which includes 14 campuses; and stuck-in-limbo pot of more than $650 million earmarked for so-called “non-preferred” colleges such as Penn State University and University of Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
The 14-university system's Board of Governors voted Thursday to ask the state for $562.2 million for 2018-19 — a 16-percent increase, PennLIVE's Jan Murphy reports.
Officials said they would use the extra money to cover rising costs of employee pay and benefits, expand financial aid options and keep tuition prices at the current level of about $7,500 for an in-state undergraduate student.
A Wolf administration spokeswoman told Murphy, however, that she would “have a hard time bringing this amount back” to the governor amid the competition for limited resources.
College officials are requeseting the funding bump after struggling with years of sagging enrollment and retention challenges .
Enrollment at Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's 14 campuses decreased for the seventh straight fall this year, now at about 102,300 students, for a 2-percent decline from 2016.
State System spokesman Kenn Marshall had told the Trib in late August that officials were projecting a 1-percent enrollment decline systemwide.
Only two universities — West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia, and Slippery Rock University in Butler County — have posted enrollment increases in recent years.
Officials at California University of Pennsylvania — where enrollment dropped by 20 percent between 2011 and 2016 — and Clarion University — where enrollment declined 29 percent during that period — say they saw a slight uptick in enrollment as classes got under way this fall .
Between 2010 and 2016, the system lost 15,000 students.
Billy Penn's Mark Dent has pointed out one dilemma is that though Pennsylvania has universities aplenty, after years of population declines it simply “doesn't have as many high school-aged kids as it used to .” Even if every Pennsylvania high school graduate stayed in state for college — about 80 percent say they intend to — the state's university seats reportedly would still be 10 to 15 percent empty.
Penn State, Pitt & other ‘non-preferreds'
Administrators from schools such as Pitt and Penn State voiced concerns over potential for the feuding in Harrisburg to have negative effects on in-state students, who already pay among the priciest public tuition rates in the nation.
House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin told the Trib on Friday that the House can take up the non-preferred appropriations bills as soon as “the Senate passes enough revenue” to close the state's broader spending gap.
The stalemate is holding up a $600 million pot of funding slated to go to the group of so-called “state-related” or “non-preferred appropriations” universities — including Pitt, Penn State, University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, Temple University and Lincoln University. The authorization includes another $52 million for Penn State's agricultural research and extension programs .
Pitt had counted on its $150 allocation as a “fundamental assumption” in the $2.2 billion budget its board adopted in July.
“The much-talked about rebirth of Pittsburgh depends on investing in a highly educated, talented workforce that draws the attention of new industry,” University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a statement earlier this month. “These deep revenue cuts, especially coming halfway through the year, would force the University (of Pittsburgh) to take a series of actions to seek new revenue through tuition and to cut costs affecting critical services.”
If Penn State doesn't get its $250 million, Penn State President Eric J. Barron said the loss could have “a direct impact on our students and their families, since these funds are used to keep tuition lower for Pennsylvania students.” He further warned Penn State may have to turn to the potentially “devastating outcome” of axing its extension programs statewide.
Next up in Harrisburg
The House's latest attempt at plugging the budget gap is built around borrowing $1.5 billion against Pennsylvania's share of the 1998 multistate tobacco settlement — with interest, payback would cost more than $2 billion over 20 years — and a grab bag of tax increases that is projected to yield as much as $140 million in a full year.
The plan awaits action from the Senate, which reconvenes Monday.
The budget fight is now in its fourth month. Lawmakers on June 30 overwhelmingly approved a nearly $32 billion budget bill, but without a plan to fully fund it after the state government suffered its biggest cash shortfall since the recession.
Wolf's office continues to press for a severance tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, something House GOP leaders have fought.
Meanwhile, the credit rating agency Standard and Poor's lowered its rating on Pennsylvania's debt and Wolf has postponed payments for lack of cash or gotten short-term cash infusions from the Pennsylvania Treasury to pay bills on time.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.