Pennsylvania colleges dominate a nationwide list of post-secondary institutions with the highest tuition prices.
Tuition for in-state students at Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh main campuses during the 2010-11 school year put the two universities in the top two spots on the U.S. Department of Education's list of most expensive tuition at public, four-year colleges.
Tuition prices then were $15,250 at Penn State and $14,936 at Pitt.
For the 2011-12 school year, the two universities flipped top spots with Pitt's tuition of $16,132 edging out Penn State's $15,984 according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
All 19 of Penn State's branch campuses also made the list of the 33 most expensive public, four-year universities, with $12,000-plus tuition rates.
"The cost of higher education is a concern for us, especially as Penn State serves a high percentage of students from low- and middle-income families," university spokesman Geoff Rushton said.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson was not available for an interview.
Penn State tuition for 2012-13 will be set at the July Board of Trustees meeting.
"The university is committed to keeping any increase as low as possible and not placing the full burden of the impacts of the economic climate on students," Rushton said.
According to the report, the national average for in-state college tuition at a four-year, public institution is $6,669.
When the cost of books, room and board are added to tuition, subtracting any scholarships students receive, Penn State and Pitt rank fourth and fifth respectively in the category of colleges with highest net cost - Penn State, $19,816, and Pitt, $18,933.
State budget factor
Rushton said state funding is a major factor in education cost to students. For example, in 1996, Penn State's state funding was $281 million and enrollment was 77,318 students, the university reports. In 2011, state appropriations were $279 million and there were 96,519 students enrolled.
In Gov. Tom Corbett's February budget proposal for 2012-13, Pitt and Penn State were each targeted for a 30 percent cut, or more than $40 million, to their appropriations.
"The proposed budget cut would force a tuition increase," said Pitt spokesman John Fidele.
Although the state senate has passed a bill attempting to completely restore the universities' funding to 2011-12 levels, the budget appropriations are still being negotiated among the state house, senate and Corbett, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Corbett has argued that the cuts represent a small percent of the universities' total general fund budgets worth about $800 million at Pitt and $1 billion at Penn State.
"Many times, being No. 1 on a list is a good thing;" Eller said of the most expensive tuition list. "However, I don't believe that would apply here. Postsecondary institutions in Pennsylvania need to ensure that higher education remains affordable and accessible to all Pennsylvanians. Unfortunately, even when these institutions received more taxpayer dollars, they continued to increase tuition. For example, since 2001, Pennsylvania taxpayers invested more than $3.4 billion into Penn State; however, tuition increased by more than 114 percent.
"Since 2001, state taxpayers invested nearly $1.8 billion into Pitt; however, tuition increased by more than 107 percent," Eller said. "Like families and business have done over the past several years, higher education institutions need to tighten their belts and live within their means."
Rushton said the university community is "aggressively seeking ways to keep a Penn State education affordable.
"We're balancing the challenge of keeping quality high while not providing salary increases to employees two of the past three years and collapsing or leaving unfilled hundreds of positions across the university," Rushton said.
Last summer, Penn State offered voluntary retirement options to 120 eligible faculty and staff in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Cooperative Extension and 23 in the Division of Outreach, with about two thirds accepting the offers, said Rushton.
Rushton said the university has trimmed $30 million from its budget this year through cutting and merging programs, changing employee benefits packages and reducing energy and utility costs.
At Pitt, more than 300 employees have indicated they will retire June 30 to take advantage of the university's voluntary early retirement plan.
"This loss of jobs not only is unfortunate for Pitt but is bad news for the people of this region," Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said in a press release. "However, we had no choice but to take this step in the face of the serious budget challenges that we face as a result of deep decreases in state support for public higher education here in Pennsylvania."
As of fall 2011, the student-employee ratio at Pitt's main campus was 2.5 students per employee. The student-employee ratio at Penn State's University Park campus was 2.3 students per employee, according to data collected by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
"The 2:1 ratio is not relevant when discussing education dollars from tuition and appropriations," Rushton said. "The difference between the number of students and number of employees becomes much greater [when considering employees not paid with tuition or state money.]"
For example, at Penn State's main campus at University Park, Intercollegiate Athletics and auxiliary and business services - such as hotels, restaurants, housing and food services - are self-sustaining and do not use appropriations or tuition dollars. There are also faculty and staff positions funded in part or entirely by private philanthropy and external grants, and thousands of students employed in wage or work-study positions with federal funding.
There are also nearly 4,000 students employed as graduate assistants, Rushton said.
"Those self-supporting enterprises provide a significant economic benefit to the state, and in the case of Hershey Medical Center - employing more than 7,000 people - also provides an extremely important major regional hospital."
As part of the University of Pittsburgh's cost-saving efforts, Provost Patricia Beeson said administrative offices for Titusville and Bradford campuses will be centralized at the Bradford campus.
No administrative changes have been made to Pitt-Johnstown, said Fidele.
Pitt and Penn State each injected more than $800 million of research support into the Pennsylvania economy, the universities reported.
"Penn State is a massive economic engine providing tens of thousands of jobs beyond what the average school is able to do and only a fraction of the funding comes from state appropriation," Rushton said.
Penn State has generated 8,000 jobs by establishing the Hershey Medical Center, and the Pennsylvania agriculture industry has been supported by Penn State's Cooperative Extension, which provides outreach programs for producers, agricultural businesses and consumers in the state.
"If more Pennsylvania colleges could create jobs to the successful level that Penn State has done, the entire economy of the Commonwealth would turn around," he added.