PSU could lower tuition with state help

Penn State President Eric Barron had hardly taken his seat in front of PennLive’s Editorial Board before he started extolling the benefits of Penn State and citing a flurry of statistics to back it up.

Statistic number one — Penn State educates almost 100,000 students each year, and many more are banging at the door to get in. In nurturing these young people to become the next CEOs, entrepreneurs and political leaders, the university sends more than $3.6 billion directly into the state’s economy.

Barron had plenty other stats worth talking about, as well.

Penn State’s 24 campuses employ more than 50,000 people

Penn State helps to sustain more than 100,000 jobs throughout the state

Penn State’s students feed their local economies to the tune of billions of dollars each year

For every $1 in state financial support Penn State receives, it returns $1.24 in tax payments to the state

There’s plenty more of those kinds of numbers in the recent study Penn State conducted to assess its economic impact on the state and to convince lawmakers it’s high time to recommit to supporting the institution and its students.

The statistics show significant economic benefits Penn State provides to the state, and they are reason enough to make a president proud. But there’s another statistic Barron was not so proud to point out — the amount of money Pennsylvania’s government contributes to Penn State to keep it functioning as one of the premiere institutions of higher learning in the nation.

That number is not only embarrassing, it’s alarming.

Pennsylvania ranks 48th out of the 50 states in public support-per-student for general education purposes. Only New Hampshire and little Vermont rank lower.

According to Barron, the state’s contribution to Penn State education hasn’t really increased in more than two decades, despite Gov. Tom Wolf’s heralded focus on education as a priority of his administration.

What this all means is Penn State students pay higher tuition rates than their peers at public universities around the country. And that’s nothing to brag about.

“We could drop tuition by over 15 percent,” Barron said, if the state’s allocation for higher ed had just kept pace with inflation. “It is not something to be proud of,” he said, “to be funding higher education institutions at the rate of 20 years ago.”

Because of the low level of state support for higher education, Pennsylvania’s public colleges and universities are among the most expensive in the nation. In fact, four of the top 10 public universities with the highest tuitions for in-state students are right here in Pennsylvania.

The reason is clear: They have to rely on tuition to make up for the lack of state subsidies.

So, while Barron agrees student debt fueled by high tuition is one of the most pressing issues of our day, he is notably reticent to talk about holding the line on tuition increases or, God forbid, lowering it.

It’s clear that won’t happen until state lawmakers and the Wolf administration put some money behind their public declarations on the importance of education and their sympathy for debt-laden graduates. It’s the message Barron and his contingent of students brought to the State Capitol last week in their efforts to garner more state support.

Penn State is asking for $19.6 million more for next year, but so far, Gov. Wolf has not signaled increases for any state-related university in his upcoming budget, no matter what statistics their presidents cite.

Considering the return on investment President Barron so thoroughly detailed, it would seem a no-brainer for the state to reconsider its level of support for Penn State and the other state-related institutions.

We strongly urge them to do so.