Each spring for the past dozen or more years, Penn State administrators craft roughly the same narrative, which is:

“The rising costs of academic instruction, combined with flat or decreasing state appropriations, will necessitate a 3-6 percent increase in tuition. If the Pennsylvania legislature would only commit to a significant increase in state appropriations, perhaps the rate of increase wouldn’t need to be as significant.”

Administration typically works with student leadership to advance this argument, putting students in Harrisburg for Capital Day to sing for their supper. The problem with all of this is that it’s a fiction.

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There’s plenty of nuance in budgeting for a $4+ billion university operating budget, and plenty of that nuance will be lost in little pie charts like this. But unless I’m seriously misunderstanding this data, Penn State more than covers the cost of educating her students through tuition and fees.

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If tuition and fee income outpaces the expense of the academic experience, then what does the $275M+ state appropriation address?

And relating to that, it’s alarming to think about what it does to an institution’s character when it consistently advances a fictional rationale for the nature of its income and expenses to the public.

It’s distasteful to me that Penn State administration encourages student leadership to adopt a fictional narrative in advocating for more funding from the state while simultaneously glossing over the administrative choices which shape the budget and rate of increase in the first place.

I’m hopeful that Eric Barron will develop a new approach, and I’m hopeful that approach will consider the value of candor. An approach that values candor:

“We’re actively choosing to increase tuition. Yes, it more than covers the cost of the academic experience. Yes, it supports our other institutional interests, like research that shapes our shared future. As a land-grant institution, we aren’t here to imprint facts into minds as machines shape metal into a consumer product. We’re here to cultivate a spirit of inquiry vast in its scope and unknowable in its ultimate impact. This requires investment, and like any investment it requires sacrifice that we believe is worthwhile.”

If there’s not serious interest in making an absolute decrease in tuition a reality, I would support a radically different approach to genuinely justify the its rate of increase.