Update (7/27/23): The University of Pittsburgh is raising tuition by 2% for in-state undergraduates attending the Oakland campus this upcoming academic year. These students will now pay an annual base tuition of $20,155, up from $19,760 last academic year. That makes Pitt the most expensive among the four state-related universities in Pennsylvania for in-state families. 

Out-of-state undergraduates on the Oakland campus will pay a base tuition of $38,520, reflecting a 7% increase, while in-state and out-of-state graduate students will both see 3.5% increases. The university also increased its housing rates on the Oakland campus by 10% and its meal rates by 6.7%.

Pitt froze tuition on its four regional campuses. 

“We are certainly concerned about the increasing costs of higher education at Pitt and throughout the nation. We will continue to work diligently to control this burden while elevating financial assistance and overall quality,” Chancellor Joan T.A. Gabel said in a message to the campus community.

Gabel said the university approved its budget for this fiscal year under the assumption that the state will provide the university with funding to support the in-state tuition discount. The university will continue to work with state lawmakers through the coming weeks “to emphasize the importance of supporting Pennsylvania’s students and increasing funding for state-related universities,” Gabel said. 

Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice Chancellor Hari Sastry said in a message to campus that state funding for the university has remained flat, at about $151 million, since 2020. In 2011, the state provided Pitt with $165 million — meaning the state has decreased its funding for Pitt while the university’s costs have increased, Sastry said.

State lawmakers are holding up funding for Pitt. Here’s what that means.

Reported 7/20/23:  For more than 50 years, the University of Pittsburgh has received state funding to reduce the cost of tuition for thousands of Pennsylvania students. But partisan division has so far blocked attempts to approve the funding, creating uncertainty over in-state families’ tuition bills for the upcoming school year. 

Failure to reach an agreement means Pennsylvania families could pay more in tuition this year. And, it underscores what some observers see as a shift in the legislature. The tension over Pitt’s funding has become a repeated issue, and it could distract officials from developing broader strategies to reduce the cost of college in one of the least affordable states for higher education. 

Pitt and three other universities – Temple University, the Pennsylvania State University and Lincoln University – all receive funding from the state but operate independently of it. 

Democratic lawmakers want to allocate about $642 million to these “state-related” universities, including about $162.3 million to Pitt, but Republicans in the House of Representatives have largely voted down bills to approve that funding.

Some House Republicans have expressed concern that Pitt, Temple and Penn State have not committed to freezing tuition for the upcoming academic year, and that all four are not fully subject to the state’s Right-to-Know Law. 

In June, the House voted on separate bills to fund Pitt, Temple and Lincoln. Only the bill for Lincoln – the one state-related that Republican lawmakers said committed to freezing tuition – passed. A bill for Penn State was not brought up for a vote. Another bill that would fund all four institutions failed twice. 

“It should absolutely be about student opportunity, not institutional entitlement,” said House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaking on the floor during the latter bill’s final consideration. He said that voting in support of the bill was also a vote for tuition increases “because we don’t have the necessary reforms.”

The funding allows Pitt to reduce the cost of attendance for roughly 17,000 students, dropping the cost by about $16,000 for undergraduates. Before financial aid, Pitt’s tuition last academic year was roughly $37,300 for out-of-state undergraduates, who don’t receive the discount. 

And while some lawmakers hope that the issue will be resolved sooner than later, the legislature is not set to officially return until September. For now, families like Isabel Lam’s are following the news closely. 

Lam, a rising senior at Pitt from Scranton, said she and her family are trying to stay optimistic that the university will receive its funding and not hike tuition for in-state students. Lam is a first-generation college student, and the in-state discount and her need-based aid largely shaped her decision to attend Pitt. Her sister will be a freshman at Penn State this fall, too.

“Two kids going to college at the same time, it would be a burden on any family, but my family chose the best yet cheapest option that we could,” Lam said. “I think it’s really unfair to really jeopardize kids’ educations for a larger political issue.” 

State funding backslides

State Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, of Forest Hills, a member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees, said that lawmakers in recent years have used the funding bills as leverage to address what he views as unrelated policy issues. The bills require a two-thirds majority vote to pass the House, meaning the current Democratic majority can’t approve the funding without the support of some Republicans. 

The state House passed the appropriations bill in early July last year, also past the June 30 budget deadline, which allocated about $151 million to Pitt. The House Republicans had initially attempted to block Pitt from receiving its funding unless the university halted its fetal tissue research. 

For years prior, the appropriations process advanced without significant obstacles, Costa said. He recalled only one conflict from more than 20 years ago, when state lawmakers modified Pitt’s funding bill to prohibit the university from using state tax money on its Environmental Law Clinic

“We’re legislating now in a totally different environment,” Costa said. “We’ve always had disagreements about policy matters, but they were done in an appropriate and civil way.”

There’s also less money going around now, even after debates subside. State appropriations for public universities in Pennsylvania have declined by nearly 42% since 1980, according to a May report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Pennsylvania ranked 49th in per-student funding at its public universities in the 2022 fiscal year.

Pitt has said that the state appropriation made up nearly one-third of the university’s budget in 1975 but accounts for less than 10% today, which has contributed to the university’s tuition increases. Pitt froze tuition during the 2020-21 academic year, at the height of the pandemic, but tuition costs have largely continued to rise over the last decade.

Pitt declined to make available officials in its Office of Government Relations and Advocacy, instead pointing to an op-ed former Chancellor Patrick Gallagher published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. Gallagher said then that Pennsylvania’s system of higher education lacks organization and resources when compared to other states.

“Pennsylvania has not meaningfully invested in its colleges and universities, and it has not prioritized building one healthy, symbiotic higher education system,” Gallagher wrote.

Should Pitt freeze tuition?

House Minority Leader Cutler and House Republican Appropriations Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, were not made available for interviews. “If House Democrats, the Governor, and the State-Related Universities want to earn Republican votes, the conditions are clear and have not changed,” Grove said in a press release.

Kelly Rosinger, an associate professor of education and public policy at Penn State, said that it’s “a little disingenuous” for some Republican lawmakers to attach concerns over tuition increases to this year’s funding discussion. 

“Holding state funding hostage is going to necessitate tuition increases,” Rosinger said. “Institutions have a responsibility to maintain low tuition rates, but that’s dependent on states adequately funding institutions, which Pennsylvania, historically, has really not done.”

But Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said the state-related universities should freeze tuition in exchange for increased funding. 

She pointed to the public Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education [PASSHE], which is undergoing a yearslong redesign to improve its educational and business models amid enrollment declines and rising costs. The system has consolidated six universities into two regional institutions, reduced duplicate academic programs and has kept tuition flat for five consecutive years.

As part of the redesign, PASSHE says the system has “worked hard to restore its reputation with the legislature and governor by listening to their concerns and taking action to rebuild trust.” The 2022-23 state budget provided a 16% increase in base funding to PASSHE. 

Finney said the state-related universities compete with one another for students and may have redundant academic programs. A tuition freeze would force the state-related universities to operate more efficiently and drop any duplicate or competing programs, she said, adding that their collective programming has not been scrutinized like that of the PASSHE system. 

Costa said he doesn’t believe that the state-related universities are comparable to the PASSHE system. The system has received “considerable” state resources beyond the annual appropriation, and it does not face the costs associated with Pitt’s research activity, he said. 

The state-related universities should be more transparent with lawmakers and accountable about their efforts to curtail costs and ensure access to local students, he said, but tying those concerns to the institutions’ funding is the wrong move.

“We have to ensure that we’re not going to be the barrier to somebody returning to school, or somebody deciding to come to Pitt as opposed to some other school outside of Pennsylvania,” Costa said.

Ciara Gordon, a rising junior from Homewood, has relied on the in-state tuition discount and financial aid to pay for her Pitt education. Her tuition expenses stood at $20,840 last academic year, but she received enough grants and scholarships to cover all but $6,225 in estimated direct costs. She participated in Pitt’s advocacy efforts last year to preserve the tuition discount.

She said she may need to take out loans to cover increases in tuition. “As much as I love Pitt,” Gordon said, she would even consider transferring to a less-expensive university. 

“There’s also so many other opportunities out there, where I can still go for free, and probably get more scholarships and more money.” 

Is there room for reform?

The annual funding debate in the legislature prevents lawmakers from strategizing around Pennsylvania’s long-term higher education needs, Finney said. She expressed concern over a declining college-age population nationwide; excessive competition among the state’s four-year universities for that limited pool of students; and a need to attract or re-enroll adult students who lack degrees. 

Other states could serve as models for reforming higher education in Pennsylvania.

Finney pointed to Illinois, which created a “system of systems” in the 1960s. Leaders of the state’s public university systems presented their budget proposals to a state board, which then delivered a consolidated proposal to the legislature. The effort remained largely nonpartisan, she said, and facilitated cooperation among the systems. 

The Illinois legislature dissolved the model in 1995 due to “institutional demands for greater autonomy and in order to reduce administrative costs,” Finney co-wrote in a 2011 report

There could be further room for change in the legislative process, too. Costa said a shift from a two-thirds majority vote to a simple majority is worth considering for the state-related universities.

“I don’t know if we’re there yet,” he said. “But I don’t think that we can continue down this path where, each year, we are putting families in a situation where they don’t know whether they’re going to have enough resources to be able to send their child to those universities.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the PASSHE system’s freeze of tuition for the fifth consecutive year, announced after publication.

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin. 

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.