Barron discusses access and affordability strategies to support students

May 07, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State is committed to providing students with an accessible and affordable high-quality education, and the University is employing a range of creative strategies to help manage educational costs and meet students’ needs, according to Penn State President Eric Barron.

Along with discussing traditional mechanisms for lowering costs in a presentation to the Board of Trustees at its Friday (May 7) hybrid meeting, Barron highlighted non-traditional strategies — from addressing housing and food insecurity to building financial literacy — the University is using to help make a Penn State education more affordable for students.

“For so many students, a Penn State degree continues to place them on a trajectory for lifelong achievement,” Barron said. “The foundation of our land-grant mission is our responsibility to help keep a world-class education accessible for students and working families. Our approach is focused on creating solutions to help students thrive while they are at school, to borrow less, graduate on time and gain financial skills as they prepare to launch their careers and lives.”

Penn State has accomplished multiple years of tuition freezes for in-state students, thanks in part to longstanding efforts to control and monitor costs. According to Barron, when calculated in fiscal year 2021 dollars, in-state students are now paying less tuition for their Penn State education than they were in 2011-12, as well as that Penn State’s tuition has increased less than other Big Ten schools.

At the meeting, Barron summarized efforts to support students during the pandemic, as well as year-round programs that are helping to meet students’ essential needs.

For example, Barron highlighted the ongoing work of a University task force he formed in 2020 to help mitigate student food and housing insecurity across Penn State’s campuses. He announced a new LiveOn Student Success Grant pilot program that provides room-and-board aid for residential students across the Commonwealth and shared updates on a recent Swipe Out Hunger event that allowed students to donate dining dollars, raising more than $12,000 for the Student Emergency Fund.

At the board meeting, Barron offered a snapshot of strategies to address access and affordability:

  • Controlling tuition costs: Among the University’s comprehensive efforts to control the cost of a degree has been multiple years of frozen in-state tuition, including no increases in 2020-21 and tuition adjustments for summer 2020, for all students in acknowledgement of the financial hardship many families have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barron added that Penn State is ranked seventh in the Association of American Universities for the lowest increases in in-state tuition over the last 10 years. Budget reductions and reallocations are a continuing effort, including for example a recent board agreement to divide $150 million in savings between innovation and affordability efforts.
  • Financial aid and COVID-19 relief: Federal, state and private aid totaling $946.4 million are key in making Penn State affordable and accessible. Of the total financial aid to Penn State students in 2019-20, federal financial aid accounted for 49%, private and external aid accounted for 23%, and state aid accounted for 3%. To continue to expand opportunities for students, Penn State is lobbying for increases in federal Pell Grants, for the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program to be applied to state-related universities and for greater funding for the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). As part of the emergency support for COVID-19 relief, in 2020, the University awarded approximately $27,733,503 to 28,129 students as part of the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund in the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. A second round of emergency funding totaling $1,023,379 is in the process of being awarded to approximately 1,300 students.
  • Institutional aid, scholarships and grants: The University’s institutional student aid totaled $322 million — 25% of total aid funds — with 42,000 recipients in 2019-20. A variety of direct scholarships, grants and other programs are available to help students manage costs. For example, Provost Awards — which are need-based awards that have been given to more than 14,600 high-achieving students since 2013 — provide $5,000 to students each year for their first two years and $7,000 each year for their final two years at the University. In addition, so far this year, a Board of Trustees Emergency Fund, which values $602,000, has awarded $23,093 to 13 students to address urgent emergency needs.
  • Financial support at key moments of access and transition: The Open Doors Scholarship Programs — that reach students beginning as early as high school and continue through graduation — are designed to help manage debt and keep students on track to their degrees with financial and other types of support. To date, more than $11.4 million in support has been given to 4,025 students across the five Open Doors programs: RaiseMe, Pathway to Success: Summer Start (PaSSS), Student Transitional Experiences Program (STEP), Complete Penn State, and Smart Track to Success. Philanthropic support for these scholarships continues to hit important milestones with more than $525.1 million raised of the $740 million philanthropic goal. In addition, the new Educational Equity Scholarship program — with 165 committed donor gifts of $11.1 million with a total impact of $24.6 million after matching — is providing scholarships to qualified students from all genders, races, ethnicities, and cultural and/or national backgrounds to support diversity within the student body.
  • Addressing food and housing insecurity: While food insecurity varies widely by campus location, roughly 35% of Penn State students have reported some level of food insecurity. As a critical priority, the University is focused on a variety of efforts to help mitigate this challenge. Among the efforts to enact recommendations from the University Task Force of Food and Housing Security are plans to enhance the Lion’s Pantry funding, purchasing and offerings; establish a permanent Student Emergency Fund through annual giving based on the model created to address COVID-19; and to provide funding to address housing insecurity through assistance with affordable options for break periods and emergency room-and-board vouchers. At the meeting, Barron highlighted a new LiveOn Student Success Grant pilot program that will attempt to close the annual funding gap for students seeking a residential experience who otherwise were not attending Penn State. The effort will provide need-based student aid for room-and-board costs after all federal, state, local and University grants, scholarships or awards are applied. As a partnership between the University’s offices of Housing and Food Services and Finance and Business, the effort will provide $500,000 to students at University Park and $1.9 million to students at residential Commonwealth Campuses. Residential students will save approximately 25% per year on room and board, totaling one year of free room and board for those who reside on campus for four years.
  • Using advising technology in new ways: Advising relationships play a critical role in the college experience and student success — helping to enable timely degree completion, monitor progress and connect students with resources. The University-wide Starfish online advising platform is helping students remain on track and avoid extra semesters as they advance in their coursework. The shift to virtual advising during the pandemic has expanded the use of Starfish for proactive scheduling and in identifying at-risk students. In 2020, 20,000 more advising meetings took place for a 12% increase compared to 2019. Units across the University are using the platform’s analytics to gain insight on institutional barriers to degree completion and to assess student success interventions. For example, through a new proactive outreach effort, students can self-identify by “raising their hand” to indicate they need an adviser to follow up. By using this function, more than 1,200 students unable to return to campus this fall were offered support to help find education alternatives, such as World Campus or transferring to a campus closer to home.
  • Financial literacy education: The Sokolov-Miller Family Financial Life Skills Center provides students with knowledge and skills to manage financial resources across their lifetimes through class presentations, one-on-one personal finance meetings, self-study modules and materials, and an alumni mentoring program. To date, the center has delivered 924 class sessions reaching approximately 23,100 students. The University’s We Earn website is offering students access to transparent earnings and loan debt data of Penn State alumni to support planning and decision-making around majors and careers.

To learn more, Barron’s full presentation is available to view online.

Last Updated June 08, 2021