Pa. House GOP leaders join call for universities to freeze tuition

Pressure continues to mount on universities at Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln to freeze tuition at last year’s rates.

House Republican leaders on Wednesday sent a letter to the leaders of these universities to urge them to forego tuition hikes planned for the coming academic year. The move follows a similar request from GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.

Citing the 5% increase in funding, Gov. Tom Wolf sent universities federal pandemic response aid that by law requires General Assembly approval, the lawmakers wrote in their letter. : “it would be prudent to cancel them [tuition increase] decisions for all students but at a minimum, Pennsylvania residents attending your institutions.

The letter emphasizes that the $40 million the governor has sent to universities is a one-time influx of money and would not be included in base funding coming from the state in future years. This base funding that comes from the state ensures that Pennsylvania students enjoy a reduced tuition rate that saves them several thousand dollars in tuition each year.

According to the governor’s office, the $40 million in additional funding for universities was negotiated as part of the final budget with legislative leadership. A spokeswoman for the Republican majority in the Senate confirmed PA projector there was a verbal agreement that this extra money would go to universities that were otherwise flat-funded in the 2022-23 general fund budget.

A spokesperson for House Republicans told the media organization “it would not be surprising” if Wolf chose to use the money to increase state-related funding “given that it has been a long-standing priority of his office”.

The letter from House Republicans goes on to point out that Penn State, Pitt and Temple have large endowments and further notes that Penn State and Pitt are above the state’s $5 billion Rainy Day Fund.

“Rather than adopting a punitive stance toward Pennsylvania students and families attending your institutions by raising tuition and fees, recent funding news coupled with large endowments you can count on to help offset inflation-induced cost increases now make the perfect time to reverse course on tuition increases,” reads the letter signed by the eight-member GOP leadership team led by the House Speaker. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Center County.

When it comes to dipping into endowments, university officials have pointed out that these reserves are not like a piggy bank that can be used at a university’s choosing. Most of this money is designated by the donor for a particular purpose.

So far, their demands have not caused any of the four universities to change their tuition increase plans.

Penn State, for example, approved a 5% increase for most students attending its University Park campus, while those attending its Commonwealth campuses would see a 2% increase. A university spokesperson said Tuesday that the university has yet to receive the additional $12.1 million in funding, but if it is secured, officials will work with the governor’s office to determine how it could be used appropriately.

Temple spokesman Steve Orbanek said that since the $7.9 million the governor has allocated to that university is one-time funding, as noted by House Republicans, “it wouldn’t be prudent for us to use it as part of our in-state tuition reduction.”

Pitt intends to apply the additional $7.7 million to student financial aid and outreach, according to a university spokesperson.

Lincoln University President Brenda Allen released a statement about the $758,000 in extra aid the governor was sending to her school, saying his 3% tuition increase only applies to new students. She said: “The university’s tuition freeze policy keeps a student’s tuition at the same level for a period of four years, allowing families to better plan their educational expenses.”

On Wednesday, Senate Republican leaders had no comment at this time on the matter. Statements from Democratic legislative caucuses showed they were reluctant to ask universities to bring tuition back to last year’s rates.

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County doesn’t fault the four universities for enacting “a modest increase” in tuition, saying it was necessary to make ends meet.

“Pennsylvania continues to lag some 40 other states in its contributions to public universities, forcing them to find other mechanisms to generate revenue,” Costa said. “Senate Democrats look forward to fighting for increased contributions from our state to public institutions of higher learning to keep them affordable for our students.”

Pennsylvania students who attend public institutions of higher learning pay some of the highest tuition rates in the country and, as such, graduate with more student debt than those in other states.

House Democrats said they find it ironic that fellow Republicans who unsuccessfully tried to block funding for these universities throughout the budget process because of the use of fetal tissue for medical research, are now asking those schools to freeze tuition, caucus spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman said.

“Each school’s board of trustees has the responsibility to oversee the long-term finances of their respective university,” she said. “These boards have a much better understanding of these issues than members of the legislature, and our caucus is confident that each school will assess what is best for the financial stability of its school and its students.”

She said her caucus wants to hold meetings with heads of state-linked universities to discuss their long-term financial outlook to better manage the challenges they face.

Meanwhile, Mastriano’s Democratic opponent in the November general election, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Jan Murphy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy

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