ABC 27 investigates cost of higher education, finds some state school employees getting big paydays

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Documents ABC 27 obtained through a right-to-know request show state-owned university costs are skyrocketing as the payroll for non-union employees increases.

“I kept telling my husband from, I think when Justin was little, ‘we need to start putting money away for college,’ ” parent and teacher Elena Charles said.

Elena and her husband put away what they could for their son’s future at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“Looking back, if we didn’t have that much money saved up, our son probably would have had to come home from college,” Charles said.

To keep her son wearing the IUP crimson, the family has gone in the red.

“It’s still not a fun bill to get,” Charles said.

Getting that bill isn’t going to be fun anytime soon. Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education records show in 2004, the average cost of attendance at IUP was $10,489. By 2014, that number had almost doubled to $20,816.

“We’re caught,” Charles said with a shrug. “We don’t really have a choice. We pay it and we don’t ask questions because it’s something we want our children to have.”

That’s why ABC 27 decided to investigate the question: why has the cost of public higher education skyrocketed? Pennsylvania state-owned schools point to funding cuts.

“That makes it increasingly difficult as our costs go up,” PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said. “Our only other source of revenue is really tuition.”

ABC 27 wanted to see how the state system is spending money it does have. A right-to-know request yielded hundreds of payroll records for state schools over the last 10 years. Those salaries were for employees not represented by unions; presidents, deans, assistants, and information technology staff, for example.

In 2004, the total payroll for non-union employees was more than $93 million. By 2014, payroll was up nearly 42 percent to approximately $132 million.

“Why that kind of increase?” ABC 27 reporter Amanda St. Hilaire asked. “That’s more than inflation.”

“Overall, if you look at the average salary paid to the average employee 10 years ago to today, that increase actually pretty much tracks inflation,” Marshall replied.

Economists say the inflation rate has averaged 2.13 percent per year. But last year, when tuition and fees went up, the president of Bloomsburg got a ten percent raise. He now makes more than $248,000 a year. West Chester’s president received a 13 percent raise. He now makes more than $273,000.

“That number can be tough for a parent to swallow if they’ve just written out a check for an increased tuition,” St. Hilaire said.

“Right,” Marshall said. “There were two components to those raises.”

Those components were merit increases and market adjustments.

“Our university presidents are generally payed below the national average,” Marshall said.

“Why are those adjustments being made now, especially with a lack of state funding and with enrollment numbers taking a dip?” St. Hilaire asked.

“It was a commitment that the board made several years ago, and again this is a phase-in process, and the board believes it is important to have the very strongest leadership,” Marshall replied.

“There’s always a balance in any employment situation in trying to get the best employees versus, especially when you’re a public entity, doing something that’s affordable,” Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.

His recent audit of the state system shows the schools are doing well, but DePasquale says they could also do more to keep costs down.

So ABC 27 told him about the findings from the right-to-know request. For example, the assistant to the president of Clarion University got a 50 percent jump in pay over the last 10 years. She now makes six figures.

Then there’s Bloomsburg. The school has a president, an executive assistant to the president, an executive secretary, and a deputy to the president.

DePasquale says there’s such a thing as a “luxury position.”

“You’ve got to take a second glance and say, ‘is this a critical position in furthering education today?’ ” DePasquale said. “And sometimes, there’s a situation where you see that position isn’t necessary anymore.”

That’s not all. In 2004, 16 percent of non-union employees made six figures. In 2014, 30 percent made six figures.

“That’s a lot of employees making six figures,” St. Hilaire said.

“Yes it is,” Marshall said, “but again if you look at the average numbers, our average salary has increased at about the rate of inflation.”

In the private sector, retiring employees make up for the ones who get raises.

“That’s not really happening here, so is that something that’s sustainable?” St. Hilaire asked.

“I guess on one hand it shows the system is a good place to work,” Marshall said, “but if you don’t have a lot of turnover, that is going to affect your payroll over time.”

Parents like Elena Charles say it’s time for solutions.

“I do think there needs to be some kind of a cap that goes on the salaries,” Charles said.

But the state system goes back to funding as its biggest challenge – not salaries. Reports from the auditor general show the schools have lower tuition increases than the national average, even with all the funding cuts.

“We would agree completely with the auditor general when he says we need to do more,” Marshall said. “We do need to do more. We would also agree when he says the state needs to do more.”

“These state universities are there so every day Pennsylvanians, those kids that have the grades, they can go there and not be saddled with life-long debt,” DePasquale said. “And that is basically being threatened now with a lack of state investment. That said, if state schools do receive more funding, it’s their responsibility to hold the line on tuition.”

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