Pitt, Penn State tuition freezes come after decades of steady hikes at Pennsylvania colleges and universities
The last time the University of Pittsburgh froze tuition, star running back — and future Pro Football Hall of Famer — Tony Dorsett was a junior on the Oakland campus. It was 1975.
Now, for the time in 43 years, Pitt is freezing base tuition for in-state residents. Penn State froze in-state tuition for the first time in 49 years for the 2014-15 academic year but then raised it every year since until adopting another tuition freeze on Friday.
Tuition increases that outstrip inflation have been the norm at U.S. public and private colleges and universities for most of the last half century. Tuition and fees at four-year public universities have increased anywhere from 2.5 to 13.8 percent a year over the last 30 years, according to the College Board.
The Pitt-Penn State freezes followed the adoption of a state budget that increased subsidies to the schools by 3 percent amid admonitions from lawmakers urging the schools to hold the line on tuition.
The 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — including California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock in Western Pennsylvania — also received a 3 percent increase in state support. But officials at the state system schools that last froze tuition 30 years ago increased tuition by 2.99 percent.
An anticipated 2 percent decline in enrollment in state system universities, which rely on tuition for about three-fourths of their income, offset the increase in state subsidies and left the system with a $20 million deficit despite the tuition increase.
State officials ranging from House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a York Democrat, were highly critical of the increase.
System officials said they had no other options.
“Our tuition remains less than half what most other four-year colleges and universities in the state charge. We are committed to remaining affordable and accessible to students and their families,” system spokesman Kenn Marshall said.
Experts say increases in salaries, pensions, insurance, utilities, campus upkeep and a growth in administrative staff have fueled the rapid growth in tuition and fees at universities and colleges across the country. The Higher Education Price Index, an inflation index that tracks factors driving college costs, reported inflation of 3.7 percent last year, nearly twice the 2.1 percent consumer price index.
The numbers are mind boggling to parents and grandparents, 30 to 50 years removed from the world of tuition and room and board.
Scott Rothwell, 60, of Ford City remembers when tuition at Penn State was $330 a trimester, or about $1,000 a year, when he attended in 1977-78. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that would come out to about $4,000 today. Base tuition now, however, is $18,436 a year.
Ken Burkley, 70, of Greensburg said tuition was $250 a year in 1965 when he was a freshman at Edinboro University, then Edinboro State College.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $125 in 1965 would be the equivalent of $2,019 in 2018. Tuition at Edinboro today is approaching $8,000 a year.
“It’s insane,” Burkley said.
On the other hand, the Greensburg lawyer considers public universities a bargain compared to private institutions.
“I made a deal with all of my four kids. If they’d go to a public university, they’d graduate without debt because I could do that. But it’s still insane” Burkley said.
Even graduate school was a bargain 30 years ago.
Pittsburgh lawyer Sam Cordes, 66, said he remembers paying $5,000 a year for tuition when he graduated from Pitt’s law school 30 years ago. Today, in-state tuition at the law school is nearly $34,000 a year.
Pennsylvania ranks fourth from the bottom in financial support for its public colleges and universities, with an average appropriation of $4,122 per student compared to a national average of $7,642, according to the national State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
That leaves public institutions here to rely more heavily on tuition, forcing families and students to pick up a larger share of the cost.
Cris Runtas Simpson, 59, who recently retired as a kindergarten teacher in the Fort Cherry School District, remembers when her summer jobs as a PennDOT flagger and later in the J&L mill in Aliquippa covered tuition as well as room and board at California University of Pennsylvania for most of her college years from 1977-81.
“For three summers, I made enough to pay my tuition and room and board, and my parents chipped in for spending money,” she said. “Then for my fourth year, I had to go to waitressing and tending bar, and I didn’t make as much. I got a $700 scholarship and a $500 loan, and that covered my senior year.”
Things changed dramatically by the time her children, Zach and Kacey, enrolled at their mother’s alma mater. Zach graduated in 2010; Kacey in 2013.
“Our deal was my husband and I paid half of their education, and they were responsible for the other half,” she said. “They were fortunate. They had good jobs, too. But they didn’t make enough to pay nearly what they owed. They still had to take loans.”
The Institute for College Access and Affordability Project on Student Debt found 68 percent of Pennsylvania’s class of 2016 had college debts averaging $35,759.
Simpson said she’s still a fan of her alma mater and realizes it is one of the lowest-cost public options in Pennsylvania. And she’s all for tuition freezes like the ones Pitt and Penn State enacted.
“But I still think it’s outrageous, especially when you think about what other states have. West Virginia has the Promise,” she said referring to the Mountain State’s lottery funded scholarships. “I think there’s got to be something the state can do to help our kids.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.