Tuition freeze may impact Clarion, PASSHE schools

Clarion, Pa.- Every year, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed an increase in funding for higher education.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed an increase in funding for higher education.

Governors votes on a variety of matters pertaining to its 14 state schools, with arguably the most publicized and divisive of these votes and discussions being on the schools’ annual tuition rates.

Tuition is essentially the price of higher education. It combines all payments required by students from essentials like room and board, to access to any and all campus services, and many other provisions into one convenient lump sum.

The state of Pennsylvania has seen tuition rates among the 14 PASSHE schools increase annually at nearly a 3 percent at rate for the last several years. While a marked improvement from the almost 8 percent increase the state saw for the 2011-2012 academic year, which also coincided with an 18 percent budget cut to state-wide education programs, the overall price of higher education continues to climb.

These yearly tuition bumps have been most commonly associated with former Gov. Tom Corbett’s controversial and considerable cuts to the state’s public education programs during his tenure from 2011-2015.

To provide some raw numbers, the average aggregate cost of an on-campus student of a PASSHE school for the 2014-2015 school year was roughly $19,000 according to PASSHE’s own database.

With overall funding steadily decreasing and tuition rates and overall cost steadily increasing, both the students and the universities themselves are feeling the pain.

In the last few years, the 14 state schools have been forced to discontinue enrollment in almost 200 degree programs to more effectively and efficiently appropriate funding levels comparable to those received in 1997 when higher education cost less than half as much as it does today.

For Clarion, this includes the music education degree, foreign language programs such as French and German, and also furloughing about 10 full-time faculty members by the summer of 2015, all while reassigning existing faculty and leaving various positions vacant indefinitely.

An ever-increasing number of students nationwide and among the 14 PASSHE schools, up to about 87 percent on average, receive some form of financial aid and/or take out private loans to front a cost that would be more or less impossible to cover otherwise.

These are the harsh realities faced by both students and universities in Pennsylvania and across the nation. These are the harsh realities the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Board of Governors must confront when debating and deliberating on any and all matters relating to its 14 public institutions across the state.

These are the harsh realities the Board faced in its April 8 meeting when it voted 9-8 on a tuition freeze across the fourteen universities, dependent on the passage of Governor Tom Wolf’s 2015-2016 budget and its $45.3 million commitment in increased public education funding.

I had the good fortune of sitting down with one of the two student representatives of the Board, Clarion’s own Todd Michael Garrett, to discuss the uncommonly tight vote, the greater universal powers surrounding the talks and deliberations, and his role in the process.

Garrett revealed to me that soon after Governor Wolf won the 2014 gubernatorial race against incumbent Corbett, his office had approached the Board with a proposal that received mixed reactions amongst the members. The proposal was formerly brought to the Board by Representative Mike Hanna, and reads as follows: “That the PASSHE Board of Governors, in exchange for the $45.3 million in additional state funding as proposed by Governor Wolf, commits PASSHE to a general tuition and instructional fee freeze, subject to the final determination by the PASSHE Board of Governors.”

According to Garrett, all talks surrounding tuition and institutional funding typically take place in the summer once critically important factors such as appropriations and funding have been decided and union contracts have been finalized, among numerous other important variables. To have the issue be brought up so early and in a rather unorthodox manner, with no advanced notice of this deal being brought to the Board, left several members of the Board feeling uneasy, and even made one member, Johnathan Mack, remark that it felt like the governor’s office was “holding a gun to our heads,” according to Garrett.

This has only fed into the already-tense relationship between the Board and the governor’s office, with Governor Wolf yet to sit down at a PASSHE Board meeting.

As for the vote itself, Garrett spoke as to why he and the other student representative, Chelsea E. Getsy from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, voted against the resolution: “I liked Governor Wolf’s intentions, as I strongly support increased funding and freezing tuition rates, but I had some problems with the proposal. I felt that it came at a bad time given everything that still needs to be finalized, and I found the dependency of the budget passing the state legislature damaging to the process.”

Garrett also found the inherent instability of the process due to the dependency on Governor Wolf’s budget passing the state legislature “disrespectful to students and their families” and thought the headlines posted immediately after the meeting touting the vote as a no-strings-attached tuition freeze for the upcoming academic year “misleading and not entirely accurate.”

Garrett reasoned that if the budget does not pass the state legislature, then there is no deal anyways, and tuition rates may very well increase and programs may very well need to be cut to meet budgetary demands, much to the chagrin and disappointment of thousands of students, parents, and university faculty. With that rationale in mind, Garrett and his fellow student representative, Chelsea Getsy, and six other Board members voted against the resolution.

Their dissent proved futile as the resolution passed the Board with a 9-8 vote and set the stage for Governor Wolf’s budget battle in the state legislature. Whether or not the tuition freeze will remain depends wholly on the success or failure of the over $33 billion budget in the General Assembly. In retrospect, Garrett felt that through the manner in which the proposal was brought to the board and how the talks proceeded that a “new atmosphere” between the Board and the governor’s office was created that there will be a significantly different working relationship moving forward.

To bring it all home, in an e-mail sent out to students and faculty on Tuesday, April 21, Clarion Vice-President of Finance and Administration Leonard Cullo, Jr. spoke on the resolution and the actions Clarion University will take in accordance:

“I am pleased that Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education Board of Governors continues to work with Governor Tom Wolf on a plan that would begin to restore adequate funding to the 14 state-owned universities, which includes Clarion.  In conjunction with the Board of Governors’ vote to freeze tuition for 2015-16, which is contingent upon passage of the governor’s proposed 2015-16 budget that provides a $45.3 million increase to the system, we are deferring our per-credit tuition pricing pilot for the coming year.  As the governor’s proposed budget makes it through the state legislature, we look forward to welcoming our next class of courageous and confident Clarion students.”

For more information on the resolution and what it means for Clarion University or the state’s public education program as a whole, inquiries can be made to relevant university officials, such as the Finance and Administration office, and representatives of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

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