Capital Day

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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Penn State’s tuition and fees more than cover the cost of educating her students. Look at the income figure from Tuition & Fees, and compare it to the combined expense figures of Instruction and Academic Support, Physical Plant, and Student Services:

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Penn State can more than cover the cost of educating her students without a dime from state appropriations. And note that I’m tipping the scales in the Penn State administration’s favor by treating the entirety of the physical plant expense as if it were exclusively academic and teaching purposed, when in fact much of it corresponds to administration, research, etc.

If Tuition & Fees income outpaces the expense of the academic experience, then how is the $275M+ state appropriation spent?

What does it do to an institution’s character when it consistently advances a fictional rationale for the nature of its income and expenses to the public?

Penn State students should never be treated as a political means to an end. Penn State students should never be treated as activists in a PR strategy. It is the job of administrators to administer—their choices shape Penn State’s annual budget and the rate of increase in spending, and when Tuition & Fees continue to more than cover for the cost of a Penn State education, there is a fiduciary duty to advocate with candor about why Penn State is choosing to spend more on research and other expense areas and why those choices deserve support from Pennsylvania taxpayers.

I’m hopeful that Penn State administration will eventually develop a new approach, and I’m hopeful that approach will consider the virtue of candor.

What candor would look like:

“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 simply to treat our students as machines needing to be programmed or as consumers filling up a shopping cart. We’re here to cultivate a spirit of inquiry vast in its scope, with the concrete aim of a moral and ethical citizen capable of conserving the good in the world and leaving it better than he or she found it. This requires investment far beyond the scope of classroom instruction, 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.

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