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Corbett's cuts to Penn State may inspire real reform

July 7, 2011 - Mike Maneval
Gov. Tom Corbett signed a state budget last week. It was a budget with a lot of sacrifices - but it was also a budget with promise on one important issue, particularly key to central Pennsylvania.

Corbett initially proposed cutting aid to the four "state-related" universities, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple, and Lincoln, by 50 percent. The four schools are private entities with public partnerships, under which they receive state aid in exchange for providing state residents with a reasonable tuition rate. Eventually, compromises led the cuts to be rolled back to less than 20 percent.

While the cuts to Pittsburgh, Temple or Lincoln may - or may not - be grievous, the cuts to Penn State are an appropriate way to apply pressure to an insolent institution. Penn State leans heavily on its private status when it suits the school's desire for secrecy. Yet, the school continues yearly to take state funding - even, during the past 10 years, as it fought in court to hide the salary of head football coach Joe Paterno. When the Commonwealth Court upheld a decision to release Paterno's salary in 2005, Penn State appealed the decision - after taking more than $312 million from state taxpayers the year before, and then taking more than $320 million the following year.

In 2008, the state Senate unanimously approved a law requiring Penn State and similar institutions to release pay rates and additional information for administrators and information equivocal to what would be found on an IRS Form 990. Penn State's President Graham Spanier, student newspaper The Collegian reported, opposed the law - which the Collegian notes Temple and Pittsburgh already followed voluntarily - claiming Penn State only receives a small portion of its budget - about 10 percent - from state appropriations. But as The Collegian's editorial board observed, Spanier himself leans on the state to increase the public funds given to the school. "Having it both ways simply does not work," the editorial board correctly concluded in February 2008.

And throughout all this, the millions in tax dollars taken yearly, the legal bills accumulated to defend an arrogant refusal to comply with principles of financial transparency, and control of one of televised sports' most lucrative brands, Penn State has continued to raise tuition well beyond changes in the consumer price index - resulting, as KDKA TV in Pittsburgh reported just last week, in Penn State having the highest tuition rate of any public or quasi-public school in the U.S.

This bears repeating: Penn State has the highest tution rate of any public or quasi-public university or college in the U.S.

Penn State has fallen short in its commitment to providing an affordable education to Pennsylvanians, and its used its status as a private institution to shield its budget and spending so constructively criticizing its soaring tuition rates proves sisyphean. Past attempts to connect future assistance to tuition reform have faltered. Corbett's tactic of an initial call to cut Penn State's funding by 50 percent may prove to be tough enough to get Penn State, at long last, to take affordability and financial transparency seriously.


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