Penn State University needs to do more to address its "skyrocketing" tuition rates and spiking enrollment of out-of-state and international students, compared to in-state student enrollment, the state's elected fiscal watchdog said in a report Thursday.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said tuition at the massive university system has jumped by more than 500 percent over the past three decades, driven in part by an ambitious building boom and falling state government subsidies.
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"The skyrocketing tuition is making school increasingly unaffordable," said DePasquale, a Democrat. In-state tuition is approaching $20,000 and is among the nation's highest for public universities.
He said construction that has transformed the university is one reason tuition is so high, but he also noted that financial support from the state has fallen, and argued operating 23 branch campuses may be too many.
Penn State said it has been working to reduce costs and find new revenues — and insisted there is no bias against in-state students.
In its response to the audit, the university said in the past four years it has focused on the cost of tuition. It's been trying to increase retention and graduation, lower the cost of a degree and the time it takes to get one, decrease student borrowing and avoid having students leave because of financial problems.
The study also found background clearances were missing for some of the adults who work at youth camps on campus, for everything from arts and music to sports and academic pursuits.
"It only takes one child predator to cause what could be lifetime trauma for a child," DePasquale said.
Auditors found that not all of the 24,000 employees hired by Penn State during 2016 had completed background checks on file. University officials told them that hiring is decentralized, and people who did the hiring were not able to fully explain why not all checks were performed.
DePasquale said the school has a financial incentive to favor applicants from outside Pennsylvania — their tuition is higher, they are more likely to live on campus and they generally receive less financial aid.
"Stated simply, it costs PSU no more to educate a nonresident student over a resident student; yet PSU charges nearly twice as much for a nonresident student," the report said.
He said the number of in-state students at the flagship campus in State College fell by 12 percent from 1990 through 2016, while out-of-state students increased 95 percent and students from other countries rose 310 percent.
DePasquale said Penn State's 36-member board of trustees is too large, and urged lawmakers to fully apply Pennsylvania's open-records law to the university.
He said the school's administration, and that of the other state-related universities, have lobbied the Legislature to prevent their records from being opened to public scrutiny under all provisions of the Right-to-Know Law.
"It is mind-boggling that Penn State continues to push back on these transparency and accountability issues, and believe me, they are not alone," DePasquale said.
He said Penn State should also fall under the state's Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.