Ask any group of Penn State students what the biggest issue is facing the university today and you’re likely to hear tuition mentioned first almost every time. Such was the central topic of discussion last night at the Schreyer Honors College’s Shaping the Future Summit, which featured a keynote address from President Eric Barron.
The broader topic was “The Power of Money,” but Barron focused much of his hour-long conversation at the Nittany Lion Inn on rising education costs and their impact on Penn State and higher education. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Barron seems to take a data-driven approach to tuition, with real solutions on the table. Graham Spanier spent most of his tuition mitigation efforts in a stare-down contest with Harrisburg (which he rarely won), while Rodney Erickson didn’t really seem to have much of a tuition plan at all. Of course, it wouldn’t be a talk about Penn State tuition without some good-natured pokes at the state legislature.
“When Evan Pugh became [Penn State’s first] president, the first thing he did, literally, was go to Harrisburg to ask for $50,000 for a state appropriation,” Barron said. “President Pugh’s request was denied. It’s good to know that he had some of the same problems of the modern presidents, too… since the days of Evan Pugh, we have shared that expense with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Sadly, over the last couple of decades — especially over the last decade — the investment in higher education has declined.”
The numbers are recited ad nauseam when it comes time to pay the bursar. Penn State has the second highest tuition rate in the country for a public institution, behind only Pitt. In-state tuition has nearly tripled in the last 15 years, while state appropriations are at their lowest rate ever. Despite that unsettling reality, Barron attests that Penn State has done an adequate job in properly balancing educational quality with its balance sheets.
“A lot of people say, ‘Look at how high your tuition is,'” Barron said. “But if you took the tuition paid by students and added the state appropriations and divided it by the number of students, we are below average [in dollars per student]for Big Ten institutions. Yet, this institution has above average rankings academically in the Big Ten. This institution is actually incredibly efficient in delivering a high quality education. We can’t give that up, because then you lose money for the rest of your life. There is a correlation between the quality of your degree and your starting salary and how much money you will make in your life.”
One of Barron’s preliminary proposals to tame the tuition monster is what he calls the “Penn State Promise.” According to Barron, students from the lowest income families are 22 percent less likely to graduate college than students from families that make more than $180,000 a year (did I mention he likes data?). Students who need to work long hours to pay their way through school have less time to focus on schoolwork than students without jobs and are more likely to schedule less credits and not graduate on time (as Barron likes to say, staying a fifth year is the biggest tuition increase of all). To help working students who are struggling to cover tuition costs, Barron has aspirations of starting a new loan forgiveness program.
“If you work 20 hours a week and you work hard, we’re going to find a way to pay off your loans,” Barron said. “I need $30 million. I can do that for every single in-state student and pay that gap… I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care what your background is — you should graduate at the same rate as everyone else. That’s a cathedral thought. That’s what makes a great public institution.”
After the event, I asked Barron how close the Penn State Promise was to becoming reality. It’s clear that the program is still very much in the preliminary stages, but the wheels are already turning to secure the necessary funding.
“We’re actively looking for the money to do this,” Barron said, while not divulging any specific leads other than, “I don’t think there is any chance that it will come from the state… at least, not yet.”
“We’re most likely to pilot it first. We’re going to take a population and we’ll sit there and say, ‘Okay, you’re working 20 hours a week, here’s your family contribution, here’s your loan amount, here’s your scholarship amount, here’s what you need to pay for the cost of your education that is not satisfied by 20 hours of work.’ We’re going to say, ‘Don’t work more, and we’ll cover the difference.'”
Barron also tackled two other topics of note during the public Q&A session, which are worth posting verbatim.
On textbook costs:
“Do I dare say it? The financial model of the textbook industry is going to fail, much like the recording industry — having to buy a whole bunch [of]really crummy songs by some recording artists to get the one song that you wanted. They’re going to fail because they’re trying too hard at control, and it’s going to backfire… we watch all these models come along and people try to control the markets. How often does that ever work?”
On sexual assault (I found his point about spending more resources on prevention, instead of the required bureaucracy for the vast federal reporting requirements, unique and appropriate):
“We’re in a world where every university is being investigated and everyone is being sued. The federal model is that we need to count. The money isn’t going into prevention, it’s going into compliance, when what we really want to do is spend the money on prevention.
“The numbers distort your reality. Any number of rapes is unacceptable — but what was the number reported in the Clery Report that we just sent out last week? It was a number in the thirties. And maybe there is a school of 1,200 students that has two, and we say this is a safer place. [Penn State] is actually far safer than we realize.
“But, I don’t want to talk about ‘we’re safer.’ We need to do a better job, and we ought to be able to do a better job. Too many cases are occurring in the first month of school each year. That tells you you have an educational issue and a behavioral issue that some people might be experimenting in a way that is extraordinarily dangerous and damaging.
“I sure would like to go after the problem, and I would sure like the statistics to be reported honestly, and I would sure like to look at those things that make a difference instead of this world that we need to count the right number. But that’s the world we’re in.”
There are several upcoming Schreyer Summit events this month, with another keynote scheduled for April 1, 2015. I’m told the speaker should be revealed in the coming week, with the promise that it’s “really big,” so stay tuned.