Pulse: Chatter: Higher (and Higher) Education

Can Penn State afford the new and improved Penn State?

In the educational arms race, State College attorney Sam Malizia is a valuable weapon. He’s donated hundreds of thousands to Penn State, his alma mater. Then his kids headed off to the school, and he started getting bills — and severe sticker shock. “This is not the Penn State I went to,” Malizia fumes. “Students who can afford this are not kids who grew up in the steel mills.”
He’s not alone: Outcry against the university’s price hikes has grown in recent years as PSU outpaced all other Big 10 schools in increases. In 1995, tuition at the University of Michigan ran about $500 more than Penn State’s; these days, PSU in-staters pay nearly $2,000 more a year than their Ann Arbor counterparts — $6,507 a semester, to be exact, making it the most expensive state school in the Big 10. It also happens to be $1 billion in debt.
Malizia blames PSU’s Graham Spanier, president since 1995 (back when tuition was $2,954): “The philosophy of Penn State since he’s been there is to build and build, while tuition goes up and up.” In the past 14 years, the campus has seen a flurry of new development — including the $215 million Millennium Science Complex, on which the university just broke ground.
The school continues to build, says university spokesperson Lisa Powers, because “there’s a certain lifespan of a building — and many of ours have exceeded that lifespan.” She points to increasing costs of things like health care and energy for PSU’s financial hole, as well as paltry state funding — a familiar refrain from state universities. “We used to receive a large portion of funding from the state, and in 1993, that switched entirely,” Powers says. “Now we receive less than nine percent of our funding from the state.” But actual cash from the state has increased, from $249 million in ’93 to $331.6 million today, even though the percentage it fills in the school’s budget has fallen — leading critics to argue that the problem lies with the budget itself.
“I think the tuition increase is more a reflection of decisions made by the university than of a decrease in state aid,” says Chuck Ardo, press secretary for Governor Rendell. Malizia seconds the notion. “The numbers are alarming,” he says. “But does it surprise me? No. Penn State is like the government. They borrow more than they bring in.”