Could University of Pittsburgh become private institution? 11 Investigates college voucher proposal

PITTSBURGH — A lawmaker is pushing a plan that would pull all state funding from the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Temple. Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle has reactions from both sides of this controversial proposal that could change the college landscape in Pennsylvania.

The proposal is also facing some strong pushback from critics who fear if it happens, tuition will increase and Pennsylvania will be left without any public research institutions.

Supporters of the proposal have accused critics of fearmongering.

Earle spoke with state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hill, who sits on the board of trustees at Pitt. He’s also on the boards of Duquesne University and the Community College of Allegheny County.

Earle asked Costa about the possibility that Pitt and the two other universities, without state funding, would, for all intents and purposes, become private universities.

“There’s no question. To be removed the $600-plus million dollars from these three entities, these three universities, they become private universities,” said Costa, who added the state funds are used to provide tuition discounts to in-state students. At Pitt, that comes to about $15,000 savings per year.

“If the subsidy goes away, so goes the discount. That’s harmful to the students who are here today going forward, and harm to the families going forward who want to attend these universities,” said Costa.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Greensburg, is pushing the proposal to create a college voucher program. He told Earle that as many as 124,000 low- to middle- income students would be eligible for grants of up to $7,000 every year to use at the university, college or technical school of their choice.

“What about the students attending technical schools, community colleges and every other private college? It’s supposed to be about citizens. It’s not supposed to be about a select three. We have stacked the deck to favor some of the wealthiest universities in the state. At the same time, recognizing four out of 10 of my children, of your children, are going to have to leave in order to pay off that debt, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but to me, students should have a choice, families should have a choice,” said Nelson.

At a legislative hearing in Harrisburg, representatives from the three schools said if they don’t get the state funding, students will feel the impact.

“We’d have to shift to a private model, which would have a blended rate for all students, and it would change who we recruit. We would be much more focused on out-of-state, potentially internationally as well, " said Pitt Senior Vice Chancelor Hari Sastry.

The schools are fighting back. Pitt sent letters to 100,000 alumni urging them to contact lawmakers to voice opposition to the proposal, but Nelson’s plan has also gained some early support.

Alvin Maloy is a member of the Greensburg-Jeannette Chapter of the NAACP education committee. He believes the voucher program creates more opportunities for more students.

“You get some of these undereducated young men, they don’t have the ability to go to Pitt Engineering School, so they may have to do HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) training or technical school trainings. If you’re giving them that money that allows them to be able to do that, because some of these impoverished communities, technical schools, it might as well be Harvard, " said Maloy.

Nelson, who has also questioned Pitt’s fetal tissue research and accused the universities of liberal bias, insists it’s all about fairness and equality, not retaliation, adding that his wife attended Pitt and he has two children at Penn State.

“I am not anti-Pitt, Penn State or Temple. I mean they’re great schools, but I also recognize that they are schools that are taking that money and spending it in whatever way, and just they provide. It’s a ‘wink and a nod’ assurance that those funds are going to students. And I just ask the question, if that’s true, why not give the money to the student?,” said Nelson.

Pitt declined an on-camera interview, and in sent this statement:

“The University of Pittsburgh has a 55-year partnership with the Commonwealth that supports a significant tuition discount for Pennsylvania students and families. Eliminating direct public funding for Pitt will—in no uncertain terms—jeopardize this discount, which currently saves Pennsylvania students and families as much as $15,000 each year and $60,000 over the course of a four-year college career.”

“You’re just punishing three universities to be able to achieve a goal, which I think is an appropriate goal, and that is to make higher ed(ucation) more affordable. We need to be focusing on those things without harming and disproportionately impacting those three universities,” said Costa.

“We have a segment of our population that can’t break into the workforce, because they don’t have an opportunity to be trained. Yet, we’re throwing up votes for 600 million annual tax dollars to go to the same old, same old. I mean it’s time for a change in Pennsylvania, and it’s really time everyone should be qualified to participate in, " said Nelson.

Nelson plans to hold two more public hearings, and he said he will likely introduce legislation early next year.

He admits it will be tough to pass, but at the very least he says he’s drawing attention to the costs of higher education in a state that ranks as of the most expensive.

Nick Jones, Penn State executive vice president and provost, sent this statement:

“As Pennsylvania’s public land-grant university, the state appropriation is a critical and irreplaceable part of Penn State’s budget, and no alternative funding mechanism could adequately replace the appropriation and the value that the University adds to it for Penn State students.

A direct state appropriation allows Penn State to offer an in-state tuition rate that benefits approximately 45,000 Pennsylvania resident students each year. Penn State takes the state appropriation, which equals about $5,400 per undergraduate student, and more than doubles it, with Pennsylvania undergraduates, on average, paying approximately $13,000 less for tuition annually than their nonresident counterparts.

Comments toward Rep. Nelson’s proposal would be premature at this time since it has not yet been introduced. That said, Penn State does not believe that a voucher program or other funding system could sufficiently replicate the current model and the value that it represents for our students. The absence of a direct state appropriation would be unprecedented and fundamentally change the nature of Penn State, leaving a $242.1 million funding gap that could only be filled with tuition dollars, with significant potential impacts on affordability for our low- and middle-income Pennsylvania students and their families.

Penn State leaders look forward to continued discussions with leadership in Harrisburg about the future of the appropriation and the value that it holds for Pennsylvania students, their families, and the commonwealth itself. Additional details about how Penn State uses its appropriation and how it benefits students can be found in this Penn State News article.”