New Millersville president sees greatness, challenges

Millersville University President John Anderson, in an LNP file photo near Biemsderfer Executive Center. Anderson said that, if the state boosts funding, the university could freeze tuition.

THE ISSUE

In his budget address three weeks ago, Gov. Tom Wolf called for a combined $143 million boost, 12 percent more than was provided in his predecessor’s final budget, for institutions of higher education. Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln, Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities, would get $82 million or 16 percent more. Millersville and 13 other state-system universities, $45 million, or 11 percent more between them. HACC and 13 other community colleges, could get  $15 million more, a 6 percent boost. And Thaddeus Stevens College of  Technology in Lancaster is up for $863,000, or 7 percent more. In exchange, the governor called on the state-system schools to freeze tuition and Penn State and the other state-related schools to hold tuition increases to inflation.

The governor’s reasonable request that state colleges and universities hold tuition in check in exchange for more state funds has met with several responses from state leaders in higher education.

There were, this week and last, a yes and another  yes to a freeze:

  • “If the governor’s requested numbers were to become reality,” Penn State President Eric Barron said this week, “I would recommend to the board that all campuses have no increases for in-state students.”
  • “If (the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) receives the governor’s proposed $45.3 million increase in state support, Millersville University could accommodate a tuition freeze for next year,” said MU President John Anderson.

Holding tuition increases to inflation also received an affirmative.

  • “Clearly, it’s a partnership — the state and the university — in terms of tuition,” Temple President Neil Theobald said. “If there is a significant increase in state funding, we will keep tuition at a very low rate, certainly inflation won’t be an issue.”

And then, there was last week’s lone “impossible,” which seemed a little odd when it was made a week ago today during a Senate budget hearing. It became odder still as other university leaders weighed in with the pledges above.

  • “It’s impossible to make any commitments today,” PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan said, “other than, ‘Sure, we would like to hold the line on tuition.’ ”

A freeze pledge is impossible, PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said this week, for two key reasons, the first of which suggests the governor ought, perhaps, to bring one more entity to the table: the unions representing faculty and staff at PASSHE universities.

PASSHE, Marshall said, soon will be negotiating contracts that expire June 30 with seven labor unions representing 85 percent of its employees. That puts a pressure on the cost side that could weigh against a tuition freeze.

The second factor making a tuition-freeze pledge impossible, Marshall said, is timing. Tuition bills for 2015-16 go out in August. This would, Marshall said, make it difficult for the state system to respond to a state budget signed after the middle of July and nearly impossible if negotiations stretch beyond that.

Unstated was the likelihood of extended budget negotiations between Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and Republican state House and Senate.

 The state budget is due June 30. The last time a Democratic governor worked out a budget with the GOP controlling the Senate was in 2009. Gov. Ed Rendell didn’t sign the final 2009-10 budget until October.

To avoid putting Wolf’s sensible deal on higher education at risk, the governor and lawmakers ought to start with education. They should figure out a way to fund both higher education and the state’s K-12 public schools, decide how those funds will be distributed and agree to it publicly before June 30 — a month ahead would be nice for school districts, whose budgets are due the same day.

To help them get there, PASSHE’s unions should agree to reasonable contracts in light of the challenges facing higher education, and PASSHE’s board  should signal its agreement to a tuition freeze in exchange for the increased funds before its July 9 meeting.

All of Pennsylvania’s leaders should meet in the middle on education to reach agreements that will foster a better and more fiscally responsible learning environment for students — Pennsylvania’s future.