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The Pitt News

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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

In-state tuition discount still in limbo after month-long impasse

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Kaylee Uribe | Staff Photographer
The Cathedral of Learning

Every summer, a familiar tradition takes place in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Before a new fiscal year begins every July 1, lawmakers meet in the commonwealth’s capitol to sign next fiscal year’s budget into law. For more than 50 years, this process has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to Pitt, money that is almost entirely used to provide a discounted tuition rate to in-state students.

While it only takes Governor Josh Shapiro a few seconds to sign a bill, getting one to his desk is the culmination of several months of lobbying, playing politics and back-and-forth negotiations.

This journey began in November 2022 when the midterms shook up Pennsylvania’s political composition. Republicans and Democrats maintained control of the Senate and governor’s office, respectively, but Democrats managed to flip control of the House of Representatives, giving them a 102-101 seat majority. 

Governor Shapiro delivered his $44.4 billion budget proposal before the state legislature in March. Shapiro, an ex officio Pitt Board of Trustees member, included legislation for Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln, Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities, to receive $642 million in appropriations. 

Pitt would receive $162 million of this money, a 7.1% increase from last year, to provide a discounted tuition rate to in-state students. State appropriation funding saves each in-state student approximately $16,000 each year, according to the University.

“Pitt students should know the in-state tuition rate is not guaranteed. Each year, the Pennsylvania legislature must vote to approve those funds,” David Brown, Pitt’s Vice Chancellor for Government Relations and Advocacy, said.

After a series of legislative hearings, House Bill 612 and House Bill 1458 were introduced into the House. HB 1458 focused on funding Pitt specifically while HB 612 included funding for all four state-related universities under one bill.

Unlike most budget votes, funding for state-related universities requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. Given Pennsylvania’s current divided government, state-related university funding can only pass with bipartisan support.

In recent years, House Republicans attempted to delay and withhold funding to Pitt over concerns about its fetal tissue research program, even after an independent review concluded the University’s practices were compliant with legal guidelines.

On the morning of June 26, House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) hosted a news conference where he claimed Republican ideas to amend the state-related university funding bills were being “silenced” by House Democrats.

Cutler cited state-related universities not being subject to open records laws, failure from university leaders to guarantee a tuition freeze if state funding is increased, and ensuring all appropriations go toward funding in-state tuition as reasons why he and other Republicans would not support HB 612 or HB 1458.

In addition, House Republicans said they dislike how appropriations go directly to the universities instead of to the people attending them.

“When we look at our state-related institutions, particularly Pitt, Penn State, and Temple, many of our members ask why the system is the way that it is and, more importantly, why it has not changed,” Cutler said.

To address this concern, House Republicans proposed House Bill 1489, titled the Tuition Reduction Act. Over the next four years, the proposed legislation would significantly reduce government funding toward Pitt, ultimately reclassifying it as a private institution. 

Instead, funding would be redirected toward the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency to provide in-state students with grants that can be used at any Pennsylvania technical school, community college, or four-year university.

“It’s wrong that Pitt will be given over $165 million for its 16,700 Pennsylvania undergraduate students, while their neighbors who attend other schools receive significantly less,” Representative Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland), the bill’s prime sponsor, said.

HB 1489 has yet to receive any action that would further it into becoming law.

In the evening following the press conference, the House held votes to pass HB 612 and HB 1458 into the Senate. Ultimately, neither bill garnered enough support to pass the 136-vote threshold necessary by law.

In a statement regarding the failed vote, Senate Minority Leader and Pitt Board of Trustees member Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said his party was “committed” to passing appropriations for state-related universities.

As the clock struck midnight on June 30, Pitt entered the new fiscal year without funding from the state.

While HB 1458 hasn’t seen action since the failed June 26 vote, HB 612 was reconsidered by Representatives on the afternoon of July 6.

During this vote, Republicans shared concerns regarding directly funding universities instead of students, failures to guarantee tuition freezes, funding all universities under one bill instead of separate bills, universities not being subject to Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and differences in funding between students at state-related universities and students at other institutions of higher learning.

Discussion began with Republican Eric Nelson expressing displeasure over appropriation funding only being given to state-related universities, calling it “madness.”

“This chamber has a responsibility to all young people that, if they’re gonna go, they should be equally invested in,” Nelson said. “Surely this chamber is not allowed to blindly fund our richest schools at the expense of our poorest students.”

House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford (D-Montgomery) responded to Nelson.

“There are those this year, like other years, who wanna talk about abortion politics, want to talk about gender politics, want to talk about race politics, they want to talk about everything in our universities, but they don’t want to talk about support for students,” Bradford said, referring to last year’s concerns about Pitt’s fetal tissue research and this year’s dispute regarding Penn State’s Gender Health Clinic at their Children’s Hospital.

Representative Brad Roae (R-Crawford/Erie) opposed the bill because the state-related universities could not guarantee tuition freezes for the upcoming year.

“Even though we give them all this money, they’re gonna raise tuition,” Roae said. “All of our students are gonna have to keep borrowing more, and more, and more, and more, and more money.”

Statements from Majority Appropriations Committee Chair Representative Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) and Minority Leader Bryan Cutler marked the end of discussion on the House Floor.

Harris emphasized students’ need for appropriation funding.

“You can’t say that education is the elevator out of poverty and then won’t finance the upkeep of that elevator for our young people. You can’t say to our young people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but then don’t give them the danggone boots or the straps,” Harris said.

Cutler responded to Harris’ comments by reiterating his party’s concerns and pushing for more changes to the proposed bill before it passes.

“These institutions that receive support from taxpayers and expect loyalty from lawmakers in this building must do more in providing for transparency, accountability, and, I think, tuition freezes,” Cutler said.It’s in that spirit that I hope we all can recognize that we can do better.”

After discussion ended and lawmakers cast their votes, HB 612 fell 6 votes short of passing by the required two-thirds majority, failing to go to the Senate for a second time. The House isn’t expected to reconvene until Sept. 26, nearly a month after the start of the academic year.

On July 26, the University announced tuition raises for all students at the Pittsburgh campus. In-state undergraduates can expect an average tuition increase of almost $400 for the upcoming academic year.

“As the commonwealth has not yet approved its final FY24 budget, our budgets were approved under the assumption that the state will continue its half-century-plus tradition of supporting in-state students,” wrote Chancellor Joan Gabel in an email to the Pitt community. 

Pitt’s Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Hari Sastry echoed Gabel’s confidence in state-related university appropriations passing in Harrisburg.

“We remain hopeful that the Commonwealth will support the governor’s proposed increase, which has been incorporated into our budget,” he said.

About the Contributor
Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer