By Andrew Tsou
Q: According to the “Frequently Asked Questions” section following President Spanier’s letter published March 31 at http://live.psu.edu, Gov. Corbett’s budget will cut “Penn State’s appropriation by 52.4 percent, a reduction of $182 million.” One concern about this budget cut is that some campuses, including PSNK, may close. President Spanier’s letter said that “all campuses are currently viable,” but left open the possibility of campus closures by saying that “under the current proposed cuts, we must look at every aspect of Penn State’s operations.” What is the PSNK administration doing to prevent the possibility of a campus closure?
A: The best thing we can do is show that we’re successful, and we’ve been doing that. There’s so much going on here that’s positive. We are ahead of last year’s enrollment. Last year’s enrollment was an increase at a time when most people expected us to decline. This year will be a little more challenging because … now the question about closing is in people’s minds. We were 40 percent ahead of last year’s enrollment for new students until this crisis came. We’re still ahead, but only by 10 percent. But we’ve seen so much enthusiasm from the applicant pool that I think we’re going to start inching back up to at least a double digit increase in freshman over the last year. So the best thing you can do is show that you’re successful, you’re drawing students.
The other thing you can do is show that you’re efficient, that you’re operating properly, and we are doing that. We have one of the leanest staffs in the system. For our size, we have fewer people on the campus providing services for students, yet our satisfaction rates are up in the top echelon … so we’re showing success in what we’re doing, and I think that’s the first thing you can do to avoid being caught up in any sense of closings.
The second is, when I’ve listened to Graham speak about this, yes, they’re looking at all things, but really, for me, the biggest concern is that if the state cuts that appropriation, they’re cutting the match on what it takes to educate a student in-state … if the cuts become so severe, we’ll have to increase the tuition … over time, to make up for that deficit, and when that happens, it’ll be a struggle for some campuses to survive. So I think what Graham is trying to do is fight for state money to help state residents who want a Penn State degree. And we’re an excellent example of how this university provides education to students in meaningful ways.
Most of our students come here because we’re in the area, because they know it’s a Penn State degree … a sizable portion of those wouldn’t go to University Park right off the bat. A sizable portion wouldn’t go to Beaver’s campus or to another Penn State campus; they’re kind of tied to the area. So I think we really have a place in this community, and we’re really showing that … we’re really trying to tell people, “Look at what we’re doing. Look at all the successes we’re having. Look at our enrollment this year. Look at all the interest in the campus.”
This year we have over one hundred international applicants. Last year we had like five or 10. So it’s not even just in this area. We’re doing things to try and increase our enrollment pool from outside of the community to offset some of the population decline in the area. And all these strategies are working, even in the face of additional challenges, like a rumor that some campus is going to close … my standard answer now is that we’re going to be open 20 years from now. People like you will graduate and become millionaires and give us money and we’ll be even greater than we are now.
Now, that said, this is the largest challenge to a budget that Penn State has ever endured. Statewide, it’s the largest challenge to public education in the history of the country. I’m not trying to slough it off and say, “Oh, I’m not worried about the budget at all.” We are, and we’re looking at ways to try to handle a cut. We know something’s coming … and we’re at the point where there are some things we can do, through transition and things of that nature, but we’re so lean that if you cut a person here, you’re cutting a position. If you cut a position, you’re cutting a function. So what are you going to do? … We’re going to be really hard-pressed to come up with significant cuts, particularly cuts that won’t affect student satisfaction and the student experience. But we’re running different models … we’re looking at realigning our faculty and our faculty staffing.
Q: Are there any academic departments at risk (i.e., any major or minors that might be eliminated)?
A: Well … yes. And not only us, but the university is looking at some low-enrolled programs, and we’ll make recommendations soon on which programs they think, by campus, need to be eliminated, merged or enhanced. In our case, because our budget’s so tight already, I’m actually looking at realigning programs to try to find programs that attract more students, more majors, more four-year degree programs. So part of our realignment, because we already are so efficient, is to try to invest in the future. Recognizing that … every campus is going to have an obligation to help the state meet its budget deficit, and I think that’s fair. What I don’t think is fair is that we put all that on the backs of students.
Q: President Spanier’s letter explains that the tuition for in-state Penn State students has risen over the past decade because, during that time, “the state appropriation remained stagnant,” while the University’s “enrollment increased by 14,000 students (or 17 percent).” In other words, the increase in enrollment that each individual in-state student received proportionally fewer state funds to off-set their tuition. The following academic year is presumed to be particularly troublesome for students, tuition-wise. How valid is this fear, and what has PSNK done to alleviate tuition increases for students?
A: We don’t really have any power to do that. The tuition for us is set at University Park for the system, so we don’t set our own. We have some limited leeway in the amount of fees we can charge for facilities and activities … and parking. We can probably charge a parking fee if we wanted to. We try to keep those down, though I will tell you I do think the activities fee, or maybe it’s the facilities fee, one of the two, we’re at the high end, and the reason why we do that is we pump that money right back in, and I think if you went and talked to Student Government you’ll see that money gets turned around, and that’s why you have this new café down here … so one of the things we’re doing to keep tuition down … well, is that true? … Penn State’s a huge university, and whenever you try to do something to a facility here, you have to package that money. You have to find money from the system itself. You have to come up with money from your own budget. You have to go to students and try and get them to agree to fund some of it. So some of the things that are happening in the Student Activities Center, the Athletic Center down there, that’s all student money. Well, not all of it, but a large portion of it. We find donors and people to match that.
In terms of specifically keeping tuition down … we’re a small little pond in the big pool of Penn State, but the more students we get, the more successful we are, [and] the less we’ll have to charge our students. So scale’s one, and we’re contributing to that in a small way. The other is to voice our opinions, and we do that collectively as chancellors, to the university administration over what fee hikes would mean … to campuses like ours, where the majority of our students work and are from circumstances where they have to fund their education either themselves, or the family has to really struggle to put a student through, and those [arguments] are generally heard.
If you look at what the cost is of educating that student, and then you look at what they charge for tuition … the fee increases are reasonable. In this environment, the reason why they’re looking to cut any fat they can, and why they’re looking at the viability of campuses and looking at programs, is because they want to make sure that students, especially on these campuses, don’t have to come up with the lack of state support … so Graham is being very active on that front, because he doesn’t want … [to] increase your tuition to $24,000 a year. He’s going to find a way, and the university is actively looking for a way, to avoid having to do that, and so that is going to be cuts.
So the question was “What are we doing to alleviate fees?” Well, we’re making the case about what the capacity is of our students to assume additional costs of education, and contributing to the bottom line in terms of trying to get as many students as we can, who are qualified to get a Penn State degree, and we succeed here.
Q: President Spanier’s letter said that “University employees (from the president on down) will have to take a pay freeze.” Spanier also mentioned that “some targeted layoffs were necessary.” How will this affect faculty and staff at PSNK?
A: Well, that remains to be seen. This situation’s fluid right now. I think we have an excellent case to make that we are as lean as we can be in many areas. We have an opportunity, with faculty, to make some of the cuts we need to through attrition, and so that’s really what we’re looking at.
We’re not in a position where we can lay off a hundred people. If we laid off a hundred people, there’d be nobody here … there are a couple of programs that we’re looking at, but my main line in response to this … is, “Look how lean and mean we are now, and what we’re able to do.” There’s a certain minimum that you have to have in budget and resources in order to provide a Penn State education, and I’m willing to bet that we’re probably at that minimum.
I’m being vague, partly because people are going to read this, and it’s their lives, and they’re nervous … I’m optimistic, but I can’t promise people that we aren’t going to have significant things going on, because I don’t really know. If Graham and the governor have a complete falling out and one of them gets mad and just says, “The hell with it, we’re not even going to give you the eight percent, we’re going to give you nothing” – Will we have to take some drastic measures? Yes. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I really don’t. And so I’m reluctant to specify people or programs yet, because we don’t know what the breadth of the cuts are going to be …
Q: How do you propose that students, faculty and staff prepare for these budget cuts?
A: I think here, the best thing we can do is focus on what we do best. And for students, that’s getting as much as they can out of PSNK: going to class, getting good grades, moving on toward their degree, participating in student activities, and helping us sell that experience to prospective students. And really, for staff and faculty, I focus on the same kind of thing.
The worst thing that could happen now is for everyone to start getting so nervous that we stop doing what we do best. If we do that, then we’re not going to be successful, and we’ll have even less of a case to make. But we’ve got … a record number of people coming to our open house in the next couple of weeks. We have a record number of people coming to our … Offer Reception. We have a lot of people who are looking at PSNK and considering this a really good place for an education, and … the way we’re going to get out of this is to focus on those folks, give them a good education, and build on it … we have very specific enrollment strategies that we have done to get to where we are, to try and exceed expectations. Some of that is geared towards students inside a 30-minute commute; some of that is geared toward students from out-of-state, outside the 30-minute commute, outside the country. And we’re starting to see progress on all those fronts. And so the best thing we can do is get … enrollment to the highest number we possibly can.
It’s a challenging environment. And I think if people keep focused on doing those things and get us there: teachers teach, they meet with you after class, they continue to be interested in you; students are happy and they’re active and they’re taking advantage of the things we have to offer; the staff support the students in the way that they have for decades, which is a lot of personal attention and a lot of interest in students’ success, facilitating the process; if we can keep doing that, we have those mechanisms that are bringing students to us, and we’ll be fine.