HARRISBURG, Pa. – Penn State President Eric Barron addressed appropriations committees for both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly on March 24. Barron pledged, through a series of new initiatives and a robust partnership with the Commonwealth, to do everything within his power to promote access to and affordability of a top-flight Penn State education for all Pennsylvanians, and to strengthen the University’s position as a major driver of job creation and economic development.
The leaders of Pennsylvania’s other state-related universities joined Barron during the hearings, including Temple University President Neil Theobald; University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher; and Lincoln University’s acting president, Valerie Harrison. All but Theobald were new to the hearings process this year.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s $29.9 billion budget proposal, released March 3, suggests an increase of $49.6 million (from $214.1 million to $263.7 million) for Penn State’s education and general fund, which is used primarily to offset the cost of a Penn State education for citizens of the Commonwealth. The governor’s proposal also includes a proposed $1.2 million increase (from $17.6 million to $18.8 million) for Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, and level funding of $46.2 million for Agricultural Research and Extension and $11.8 million for Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Overall, the governor’s proposal includes a total $340.6 million appropriation for Penn State, a proposed increase of $50.9 million over last year’s $289.7 million appropriation.
Wolf has said the proposed increase is a step toward restoring appropriations reductions seen in 2011 by Penn State and other state-owned and state-related institutions of higher education, during the nationwide economic downturn.
“There’s no question that we already have a powerful story,” Barron said Tuesday in his remarks to legislators. “Penn State ranks in the top 20 U.S. universities in research productivity, and consistently tops $800 million in research expenditures annually. This year, we’re on our way to setting another record for applications for admission, and the caliber of the students exceeded every expectation. In addition, Penn State ranks as the single largest contributor to the state’s economy, generating more than $16 billion annually.”
However, in order to fully realize Penn State’s land-grant mission, Barron told state officials the University and the Commonwealth must work together to tackle a number of challenges, chief among them access and affordability.
While keeping tuition increases low is a key priority, Barron stressed that tuition is just one of several important factors that have a great influence on the final cost of a Penn State degree.
Among these factors are the length of time it takes a student to graduate (a student who spends an extra semester or year at Penn State pays far more for the same degree than peers who graduate on time), the rate of borrowing for each student, and student retention and graduation rates.
Barron announced in January an access and affordability initiative designed to address these factors from a University-wide perspective by offering innovative summer programs with employment; a series of programs to reduce the time to degree for transfer students, additional scholarship programs; a focus on reducing student borrowing through financial literacy; and tailored advising to keep students on track to timely graduation.
Penn State has made a new commitment to invest $6 million annually toward these programs and others, he said, all of which are designed to drive down the total cost of a degree and student loan debt.
“There’s so much to do for affordability other than think just about tuition, in terms of shortening the time-to-degree, making sure students are more successful coming into the system and making sure transfer students aren’t taking an extra year to finish, all with an eye toward reducing the total cost of a Penn State degree,” Barron said.
In addition, Barron had already proposed tuition freezes at eight Penn State campuses, and said if the governor’s proposed funding increase of $49.6 million stands, he would recommend no tuition increase across all campuses.
Barron also discussed with legislators the importance of a strong strategic partnership between the Commonwealth and Penn State. This year, Penn State’s annual budget request includes $7.9 million for targeted strategic initiatives that will stimulate Pennsylvania’s economy and enhance student career success.
The requested funding, Barron said, will provide a significant boost to the University’s newly announced Invent Penn State initiative by supporting 1) efforts to recruit entrepreneurs-in-residence; 2) investment in key workforce needs of the Commonwealth; and 3) investment in natural gas research and cyberscience, two areas of direct relevance to economic development opportunities in the state. These investments are coupled with a series of efforts to promote a more entrepreneurial environment around Penn State’s campuses.
“Our aim is to accelerate the transfer of new ideas into useful products and processes encompassing a broad range of areas, including sustainable energy, food security, environmental protection, health care, manufacturing, educational technologies, medical devices and pharmaceuticals,” Barron said.
“In concert, these investments will create a powerful path to economic development, with strong state and local impact,” Barron said. “This is what it means to be a public university that combines excellence in teaching, research and service.”
Rep. David Millard (R-109) asked Barron about proposed flat funding for Penn State’s Agricultural Research and Extension operations.
“This year the University requested a 6.8 percent increase in this particular budget for a total of 49.4 million, but the governor’s budget recommends no increase,” Millard said. “I represent a rural area of Columbia County; what does no increase mean for the research and extension programs?”
Barron explained that a “flat increase is basically a cut” since there are inflationary costs that must be considered in operations and salaries. The Penn State president said he hopes the state can increase these funding levels.
“We recognize the fiscal pressures facing the Commonwealth and intend to do everything possible to provide excellent returns on your investment,” Barron said.
Pennsylvania Senate and House lawmakers now must agree on a budget and present it to the governor for his signature by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.