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Pennsylvania universities ask for more funds, talk up keeping tuition low

By Anthony Hennen

College costs and student debt remain high, and the Senate Appropriations Committee’s hearing with the leaders of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities was about how the General Assembly can help schools, rather than why its leaders aren’t doing more.

While leaders of Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln universities noted more funding from the Legislature would cover more costs, they noted an emphasis on graduating students faster to lower student debt. 

“The biggest increment in student debt is a student that goes five years, or then six years,” Penn State President Eric Barron said. “Penn State’s working really hard on the time to degree as an issue.”

“We primarily try to help by offering the opportunity for our students’ tuition to be held steady for four years, so it’s an incentive to finish in four years. Any increases that happen only go to the new class coming in,” Lincoln University President Brenda Allen said. “One of the best things we can do for our students is to help them finish efficiently in four years.” 

By matching Pell grants and limiting or capping unmet financial need, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher noted that student debt has fallen by 24%.

Like the costs of college, student mental health issues were mentioned repeatedly. Leaders noted that COVID-19 made problems worse, and they don’t expect them to go away quickly.

“This year we are fully back on campus and really adjusting to some of the isolation … what we do see on the ground is that not being on campus for a year has had some negative impact on students’ social and emotional abilities,” Allen said. “We’ve been having to supply a lot more mental health support for students.”

At Penn State, Barron noted they are spending $4 million every year on mental health services.

“We need more training in that regard and we need a lot more resources” for mental health, Temple University President Jason Winguard said.

By 2019, higher education experts were already warning about the impossibility of identifying and treating students with depression and anxiety. Spending increased 72 percent more on mental health concerns than 2016 to 2018. That spending is likely to keep rising.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, raised the perceived lack of progress in student and faculty diversity.

“What do we have to do to get more Pennsylvania African Americans into your schools?” Hughes asked.

“It starts with financial resources,” Winguard said. Barron noted that it’s harder to increase faculty diversity than student diversity. “They are quickly snatched up by other schools,” Barron said.

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