Pa. House lawmakers ask state-related university leaders to justify proposed funding growth

‘This chamber struggles between balancing the policy debate of direct funding for students or continued select funding of individual universities,’ state Rep. Eric Nelson said

By: - March 21, 2023 7:11 pm

Lincoln University (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

Lawmakers probed the workings of Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities in a House Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday, asking the institutions’ presidents to define the value taxpayers receive for their contributions to the schools’ bottom lines.

Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln universities  would receive a 7.1% increase in state funding, which has remained level for the past four years, under Gov. Josh Shapiro’s 2023-24 budget proposal.

That’s a 5% greater increase than Shapiro has proposed for the 10 state-owned universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday zeroed in on Pitt and Penn State’s multi-billion dollar endowments. Noting that with Temple, they were ranked among the 10 most expensive public schools in the country in 2021, lawmakers asked their presidents to defend the additional spending. 

Asked by Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Fayette, whether the universities would commit to a tuition freeze if they received the 7% increase, each president said they could not.

“At Lincoln, we’re 70% tuition dependent and so we are obligated for increases, inflation is through the roof and so just to manage through the budget we could not do without a small tuition increase,” Lincoln President Brenda A. Allen said.

Warner said that without greater transparency of how each university spends the state assistance funding and representation of General Assembly among the universities’ trustees, he would not support Shapiro’s proposal to increase funding.

Other lawmakers asked the presidents to explain how they work to ensure that their higher education opportunities remain accessible to lower-income and first generation students and what they do to ensure the students successfully earn a degree and enter the workforce.

Together, the four state-related universities would get more than $607 million in state funding if Shapiro’s proposal were approved without changes.

“This chamber struggles between balancing the policy debate of direct funding for students or continued select funding of individual universities,” state Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, said, noting that his own family has struggled with the state-related universities tuition.

Pitt Chancellor Pat Gallagher said Pennsylvania’s state-related university system puts every state tax dollar it receives toward providing discounted tuition to state residents. But Pennsylvania universities face the same cost pressures as those across the country and Pennsylvania’s per capita investment in higher education is among the lowest.

Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi noted that while much of the endowment money universities receive is restricted for specific uses such as hiring faculty or research. Penn State spends about 5% of the interest earned from its endowment on student scholarships. Gallagher added that Pitt spends all of the money earned from its non-designated endowments toward financial aid. 

House Education Committee Chairperson Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, asked what the universities are doing to ensure that the admission of minority students keeps pace with the population growth in majority-minority communities such as Allentown, in his district.

Temple University President Jason Wingard said last fall’s new students were the most diverse in Temple’s history and that’s an intended result of outreach efforts.

“Across the state, we have to make sure that students and their families and the communities understand that higher education is an option,” Wingard said.

With first-generation college students making up 65% of Temple’s student body, making higher education accessible goes beyond ensuring that they can pay the tuition.

“They may not have family members who can advise them and give them guidance to get through school,” Wingard said.

Allen said 95% of her student body are people of college and a majority are first generation college students. 

“When you come from a first generation background you don’t have a lot of knowledge about how to be a good consumer of what educational enterprises offer,” Allen said.

The biggest thing Lincoln does to ensure students succeed is provide funding beyond what students can secure in financial aid to cover the true cost of tuition. 

“For a Lincoln student who’s a Pennsylvania resident that gap is usually about $6,000 to $7,000 a year,” Allen said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot for people who have means but for low income families $7,000 might as well be $70,000 in order to help them to fulfill their dreams.”

With the six-week strike by Temple’s graduate students in recent memory, Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, asked what impact it had on Temple and what lessons administrators learned. 

“For us to succeed as a state to draw more students to our institutions, we need to attract and retain workers at our institutions of higher education,” Fiedler said.

Wingard said the graduate student strike was unfortunate and that during the work stoppage Temple settled contracts with two other unions. But Temple took a hit to its reputation and must work to repair it. 

“We are upholding our mission. We have to come together and unite to repair and heal from that period of time. And we can do that and we will do that,” Wingard said.

Rep. Abigail Salisbury, D-Allegheny, noted that she taught as an adjunct at Pitt, but had the luxury of doing so in her spare time as a practicing attorney. Many adjunct faculty struggle to make a living teaching multiple courses, sometimes at different institutions, to make ends meet.

“I want to make sure that as you’re preparing your budget, you are being mindful that you need to provide a living wage for your employees, in particular the adjunct faculty,” Salisbury said.

Gallagher said ensuring Pitt’s workers earn a living wage has been a focus for the university for several years, with modernization in its human resources office that allows it to do analysis to ensure that none of its employees are below acceptable levels of compensation. He noted that Pitt’s faculty, with the exception of medical school staff, are represented by the United Steelworkers union. 

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.