College students will soon be returning to campuses across Pennsylvania, and tuition bills have already been sent out. Those bills will be higher for all state and state-related universities — except Penn State.
The home of the Nittany Lions as well as Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education changed tuition plans this year.
Penn State University’s board of trustees voted to freeze in-state tuition for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Last month’s unanimous decision scrapped a plan for a 2.7-percent hike, or $450, on main campus. The freeze applies to Pennsylvania residents attending any of the university’s 19 undergraduate campuses.
The board was determined to avoid a rate hike at as many of its campuses as possible, said Penn State President Eric Barron.
“I told the Legislature and the governor that they were going to be proud of the degree to which Penn State was going to be very serious about controlling tuition increases,” he said. “And so we have been steadily chipping away all year long.”
Initially, only certain campuses were slated for a tuition freeze, Barron said. But at each subsequent board meeting, more were added.
Barron also started an access and affordability effort more than a year ago to help drive down overall costs.
“Many people focus on tuition, but in fact it’s the total cost of a degree. And the biggest tuition increase you can have is to go an extra year,” Barron said. “So, a lot of the other programs that we’ve been working on are all designed to lower the time to degree, and therefore the cost of the degree.”
The freeze, however, has left a $17 million gap in Penn State’s budget.
“The board was eager to make a statement with a zero increase,” he said. “This was the right thing to do.”
The board agreed earlier this year to freeze tuition if the state increased funding by 11 percent. The university’s current budget assumes a 3 percent increase from the state, a percentage Barron hopes will be higher in reality.
In-state freshmen and sophomores attending the State College campus will pay $16,572 in tuition.
Tuition for out-of-state students has increased almost 3 percent at main campus, and up to 2.4 percent at the branch campuses.
Penn State holds the No. 2 spot on the U.S. Department of Education’s annual list of four-year public universities with the highest tuition, behind the University of Pittsburgh.
The other state-related universities — Pitt, Temple and Lincoln — have all increased tuition.
Tuition rising at 14 state schools
The 14 universities that make up Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education — Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester — also have changed their tuition plans.
They initially agreed earlier to freeze tuition if they received an overall $45 million increase in state funding.
It would have been only the second time in the system’s 32-history it did not raise tuition.
But with no state budget deal in Harrisburg, the system’s board of governors approved a 3.5 percent tuition increase in July.
“As a result of not knowing what we might end up with from the state and the need for the universities to send out tuition bills, we had to act to set tuition for next year in absence of a state budget,” said Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the state system.
Even with the $240 tuition increase, Marshall said the system is still looking at $30 million in cuts this year. Without the tuition hike, the system would have faced a nearly $70 million shortfall.
“We don’t like to raise tuition. We never like to raise tuition,” Marshall said. “Even if we got the $45 million we had requested from the state, we were looking at some very significant budget cuts if we did not raise tuition.”
He said the budget does not project any increase in state funding; the system hasn’t seen an increase in state funding in seven years.
“Any increase in state funding we would get would reduce the need for a portion of or all of those budget cuts,” Marshall said.
The tuition rate for a full-time Pennsylvania resident is $7,060, and in-state students make up 90 percent of students at state system schools.
The legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf remain at an impasse over the state budget. The governor has already vetoed a Republican proposed budget, in part, over its alottment of education funding.