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Spanier Quizzed over Penn State's Cost Controls

on March 28, 2011 5:32 PM

Penn State President Graham Spanier held forth for three solid hours Monday in Harrisburg, appearing with the presidents of three other state-related universities for an annual House Appropriations Committee hearing.

The state House hearing was longer and at times more contentious than the university leaders' appearance earlier this month before the Senate Appropriations Committee, where they were received mostly with friendly questions.

On the House side, representatives' questions were partly sympathetic, partly reserved and partly barbed. Several focused on Penn State's tuition rates, quizzing Spanier repeatedly about why the prices have grown more than 100 percent in the past decade.

State Rep. Cherelle Parker, a Philadelphia Democrat, reviewed the schools' tuition rates and suggested perhaps it doesn't matter if their state appropriations are cut in half, as Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed to do.

"You're going to increase the cost of tuition, anyway," Parker said to Spanier, Temple's Ann Weaver Hart, the University of PIttsburgh's Mark Nordenberg and Lincoln University's Ivory Nelson. "You've been doing it the last 10 years."

Similarly, state Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from Cumberland and York counties, asked Spanier to articulate how the university is trying to control its costs -- "because it doesn't look like anything (any effort), quite honestly," is being made, he said.

But Spanier said Penn State has worked very hard to keep tuition increases as modest as possible. For each in-state student it enrolls, he said, the university receives about $3,000 in state funds -- among the lowest levels of state support at public universities in the U.S.

That level has held steady or fallen slightly in recent years, putting a bigger burden on tuition rates, Spanier has said.

Meanwhile, he said Monday, Penn State has faced "phenomenal increases" in its health-care costs in the past decade, along with fast-growing utility bills and other expense burdens. He also said the university has made some $200 million in internal expense cuts to try to moderate tuition increases.

"I would agree: (Tuition) increases can't continue" at the pace they've been happening, Spanier said. To slow the trend, he said, the university needs to continue to be frugal and to see support from the state.

An effort by a Core Council at the university is now identifying $10 million in permanent, additional cuts within the Penn State system, largely by targeting programs seen as relatively underused.

That particular effort didn't come up in conversation at the Monday House hearing. But other specific Penn State efforts did, as state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, asked Spanier to talk about public-service programming led by the university.

Spanier launched into the history of the Penn State Cooperative Extension program, which provides public services in conjunction with state, federal and county governments.

He said Corbett's proposed budget would siphon 50 percent of that program's funding and lead to the loss of some 440 jobs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, among many other effects.

The 440 jobs lost in agriculture would amount to about 36 percent of the college's total employee base, Spanier said.

"None of us came into this budget year anticipating that it would be easy," Pitt's Nordenberg said. "All of us came into this budget year expecting that we would be making contributions to the closing of this large ($4 billion state) deficit that does exist."

But Corbett's proposal, to take away half of state support for public higher education in Pennsylvania, represents cuts "so deep, so disproportionate and so potentially damaging not only to our institutions, not only to the students and families that depend on the programs we deliver, but also to the progress of the commonwealth and its economic strength," Nordenberg.

Spanier later cited a statistic showing that Penn State bears a $25 economic impact for every dollar in state money appropriated to the university. He also cited an economic-development study that found Penn State may be the single biggest contributor to the Pennsylvania economy, generating an estimated $17 billion in economic impact each year.

Among other highlights from the hearing:

  • Spaner said Penn State has about 1,800 minorities in its employee ranks, up about 56 percent in the past decade.
  • Spanier reiterated his earlier statements that university budgeting is complex, with revenue streams designated for specific uses. While Corbett's proposed cut would eliminate just four percent of the university's overall revenue, the move would take away close to 20 percent of the money allocated for general-education and instructional expenses, Spanier has said. "It's as if we're talking about the budget in soundbites" in the news media," he said Monday. "Soundbites are simple. But the reality of operating our universities" is not.
  • Under the Corbett proposal, Spanier said, Penn State would see its state support fall to about $1,600 for each in-state student enrolled. "Yes, we do raise tuition every year because we have to," he told the lawmakers. "But it's a real struggle for us to keep tuition as low as we can because we don't want tuition to go up unduly."
  • In one of his statements most quoted Monday on Twitter, Spanier said that "you can cut your way to mediocrity, but not to excellence."

Lawmakers are expected to finalize a 2011-2012 state budget within the next couple months.

Also Monday, hundreds of state university students rallied at the Capitol to lobby for strong funding of higher education.

Earlier coverage

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