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Corman: Pa. Role in Higher Education Approaching a Crossroads

on September 08, 2011 10:52 AM

Underscored by a dramatic budget fight this year, Pennsylvania's role in financing state-related universities is quickly approaching a crossroads, state Sen. Jake Corman said.

Some argue that the state should just abandon its support for those institutions -- including Penn State -- entirely. Others, including some in Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, appear to favor a voucher-style system wherein students -- not institutions -- would receive direct higher-education support from Harrisburg.

But a third group wants the state government to bolster its current budget line items for the universities -- line items that have effectively waned for well more than a decade. (The latest blow came this year, when Penn State and its peer schools took a roughly 20 percent state-funding cut.)

Corman, R-Benner and the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, puts himself in that third group, in favor of better state funding. And on Wednesday, his committee held a hearing at Penn State University Park, granting university executives nearly three hours to argue why it's worthwhile for the commonwealth to help finance state-related institutions.

In a knowledge-based society, "the role of a university like ours is even more important than it has ever been before," Penn State President Graham Spanier testified at the hearing, held in the Forest Resources Building.

In conjunction with the federal Morrill Land-Grant Acts of the 1800s, Spanier said, the university is essentially a creation of the commonwealth -- intended to provide accessible education, practical research and public service, all with Pennsylvania's backing.

"We've always tried to pay that back," Spanier said of the state's commitment. " ... This has been a challenging year, but Penn State remains an excellent investment for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

His testimony, outlining the university's economic impact, cost-cutting measures, graduation rates and other highlights, was joined by that of other university leaders: Board Chairman Steve Garban, Provost Rodney Erickson, undergraduate student-body President T.J. Bard, agriculture Dean Bruce McPheron and research Vice President Henry Foley, among others.

Many described the relationship between Penn State and the commonwealth as an enduring public partnership, one critical to the definition and health of both entities.

Questions from the appropriations panel were generally friendly and non-confrontational. State Sen. Jim Ferlo, a Pittsburgh-area Democrat, ventured onto potentially sensitive turf when he asked Spanier about the voucher concept. The idea, to which Corbett has alluded publicly, would allow in-state college students to receive funding vouchers directly from the state.

Students could then use those vouchers to attend institutions of their choosing. The state would offer the student vouchers in lieu of granting direct appropriations to the institutions themselves.

Spanier called the concept "a little scary for an institution like us" and said that "the devil for us would be in the details of how it would unfold."

That said, Spanier went on, the voucher idea is not "completely unworkable." But under voucher-program scenarios envisioned by Penn State, there doesn't appear to be any circumstance in which "Penn State could come out ahead," he said.

"Probably the biggest question, philosophically, for us is, how do you relate ... the broad mission" of the university to a voucher program, Spanier went on. He noted that Penn State employees not only teach, but also perform practical research and public service and outreach that are supported through appropriated state funds.

"I'm not saying discussion of (vouchers) should be rejected out of hand," Spanier said. "It's something we certainly could talk about. But it's very complicated for an institution like ours."

And he's not aware of any place in the U.S. where such an approach has "been pulled off in a meaningful way," he said.

Among other remarks at the Wednesday hearing:

  • The university College of Agricultural Sciences, the Penn State college hardest hit by the state budget cut this year, is working through a $4.5 million budget deficit, Dean Bruce McPheron said. He said just more than 80 people are retiring, with more staff reductions to be completed through 70 to 100 layoffs. Paired with staffing reductions undertaken last year, McPheron said, those cuts will leave the college with about 200 fewer employees than it had two years ago. The college, to date, had employed more than 800 people overall, according to a university presentation.
  • Corman commended Garban for the university's keeping tuition increases "at a minimum" for the 2011-12 academic year. "I know you and your board had some tough decisions this year," Corman told Garban. Spanier noted that the university's aggregate 3.8 percent tuition increase is among the lowest at major universities nationwide this year, though Penn State still ranks among the most expensive public universities in the U.S. (University leaders often emphasize that Pennsylvania state government is among the most conservative nationwide in its funding of state-related universities -- a trend that helps push tuition rates higher, according to Penn State administrators.)

Interviewed after the hearing, Corman said it's important for the state-related universities to inform the public about their good work and impacts. The Wednesday gathering may have been "something of a puff piece, I suppose," but the event's underlying goals are key, he said.

Those, Corman said, include public case-making for university funding as next year's state budget cycle approaches. He does not yet know what Corbett may propose for higher-education funding in 2012-13, but preliminary signs suggest another austere year for state spending, he said.

Corbett originally proposed a state-funding cut of just more than 50 percent for the state-related universities in 2011-12. That cut was eased to nearly 20 percent during negotiations with the Legislature.

Following its appearance this week at University Park, the Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hold similar hearings at Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University -- the other state-related universities in Pennsylvania -- in the coming weeks.

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