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Mike Turzai to Penn State, Pitt: We gave you $400M, now freeze your tuition

| Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, 11:33 a.m.
Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall Township.
Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall Township.

Now that $600 million is headed their way, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai is urging officials at Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and other state-related colleges to freeze tuition prices next year.

Turzai, R-Marshall, called on university leaders to pledge not to raise tuition for in-state students in 2018-19 in a statement Wednesday night — shortly after the House voted 181-5 to approve a set of higher education appropriations bills that had been stuck in limbo amid months of state budget gridlock.

"With large bipartisan votes, the General Assembly appropriated tax dollars to Pitt, Penn State, Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school in the amount of almost $600 million," Turzai said. "These monies need to be used to help lower tuition for Pennsylvania students attending these universities."

The amount approved by the House represents an 8 percent increase in funding from 2014-15, Turzai said.

Turzai's request follows weeks of mounting concerns from university officials and warnings of steeper-than-planned tuition increases should the House fail to pass a set of appropriations bills earmarked for the so-called "state-related" or "non-preferred appropriations" universities — including Pitt, Penn State, University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school, Temple University and Lincoln University.

Pitt and Penn State already have some of the priciest public tuition rates in the nation, with in-state students at Penn State paying $17,400 to $22,000 in annual tuition in 2017 and Pitt's main campus in Oakland charging in-state students about $18,100 a year. Both have endowments topping $3.5 billion.

This year, Temple and Pitt each adopted a 2.5 percent tuition increase for in-state residents, and Penn State bumped up its in-state tuition by an average of 2.45 percent, or $232 more a year.

Penn State President Eric J. Barron, who expected to get $250 million from the state, told the Trib earlier this month that losing the funding would have had "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 had to eliminate extension programs statewide.

In response to Turzai, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Thursday that university officials "understand the desire to keep access to a Penn State education affordable" and will continue to do so — but did not go so far as to commit to a tuition freeze. She said the tuition-setting process takes into account several factors, including rising costs for employee benefits, utility and fuel, facility maintenance and faculty retention.

"We balance these considerations with aggressive cost-savings efforts," Powers said. "We are not at the point where our budgeting process is able to clearly determine what the needs will be for 2018-19. As always, we will keep tuition concerns at the forefront of our planning."

Pitt had counted on its $150 million allocation as a "fundamental assumption" in the $2.2 billion budget its board adopted in July.

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher had said the potential midyear cuts would have forced the university "to seek new revenue through tuition and to cut costs affecting critical services."

Pitt spokesman Joe Miksch did not comment on Turzai's request for a tuition freeze, but said the university was pleased that the House advanced the appropriation bill to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk.

"We are relieved that the state's 51-year relationship with Pitt has been preserved to serve the families and the future of Pennsylvania," Miksch said.

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said he was "deeply grateful."

"State funding for Pitt directly supports lower tuition rates for thousands of Pennsylvania students and their families, and it is a critical mechanism for ensuring that we retain the best and brightest students in the commonwealth," Gallagher said in a statement. "This is great news for the state of Pennsylvania and for all the Pennsylvanians who work and study at Pitt."

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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