HARRISBURG — The governor of Pennsylvania has broad authority to offer education funding, serve on college boards and appoint trustees to these critical panels.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, sent $40 million in unused stimulus funds to four universities this summer, a move he could make without input from the General Assembly.
In November, voters will choose a new governor — with the two favorites for the seat being Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, and Republican Doug Mastriano, a senator representing Franklin County.
To see how the top two candidates differ on issues related to higher education in Pennsylvania, Spotlight PA asked each campaign for information and reviewed previous political statements, votes or positions. Shapiro’s campaign responded with information. Mastriano’s campaign failed to respond.
Here is where the two candidates stand:
Vision for Pennsylvania Colleges
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, or PASSHE, is made up of 14 universities and educates more than 93,000 students. The governor, with the approval of the state Senate, appoints 11 of the 20 members of the state system’s board of trustees, who have the power to appoint college presidents, set tuition fees, and oversee other financial decisions.
The governor and the person they select to be the state’s education secretary also sit on the board. Both roles can choose people designated as replacements.
In 2016, PASSHE began a redesign to reduce costs and promote financial stability and access. In October 2021, the system requested an additional $73 million from the state, for a total of $550 million.
As a state senator, Mastriano voted to send nearly $552.5 million to the state system this summer. His campaign website makes no mention of his plans for the state system.
In a statement to Spotlight PA, Shapiro’s campaign said it plans to increase investments in PASSHE schools and work to make community college more affordable.
“As governor, Josh will champion legislation that lowers costs, increases access to community colleges and state-linked universities, and funds resources that allow more low-income students to participate in the economy. “, the campaign wrote. “He will invest more in PASSHE schools, make community college more affordable, and ensure that all of our students have many opportunities to succeed.”
The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union representing faculty and coaches at PASSHE schools, has endorsed Shapiro for the governorship.
State credits for state-linked universities
The state also allocates funds to Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities – Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln University, and Temple University. State-linked schools have less state oversight and are more autonomous than schools in the PASSHE system.
The governor sits on each of the state-related boards of directors and also appoints other directors to serve.
In July, Mastriano was among seven senators who voted against funding state-linked universities. State House Republicans had opposed funding the University of Pittsburgh because of the school’s research on fetal tissue.
Later, Mastriano sent a letter to the heads of the four universities linked to the state, asking them to reconsider the tuition increase in light of inflation and a special credit from the governor. “Families in Pennsylvania simply cannot afford rising tuition on top of rising costs in other sectors of the economy,” he wrote.
All four state-linked universities have increased tuition fees in the past year.
Shapiro, during an August visit to State College, said he supported more funding for state-linked universities, but also said those institutions should not raise tuition.
“We are 48th in the country for what we invest in higher education. We need to show that we care about investing in higher education,” Shapiro said, according to information from StateCollege.com.
United Steelworkers District 10, the union that represents Pitt’s faculty, has endorsed Shapiro for governor.
The state-bound statute exempts universities from most of the open record provisions that PASSHE schools face, except for reporting certain basic financial information and the university’s top 25 salaries.
As a state senator, Mastriano sponsored a bill that would reduce these exemptions for state-related universities. The measure would require schools to make public 175 more of their top salaries, staff information by position, financial information for individual academic units, and college contracts over $10,000, among other things.
Mastriano’s bill passed the Senate, 38 to 12, in September and was sent to the State House for consideration.
In a statement to Spotlight PA, Shapiro’s campaign said the Democratic nominee supports Mastriano’s bill. The campaign said Shapiro, who is the father of a Pitt student, pledged to increase transparency at state-tied universities to measure results and better track state funding.
College debt forgiveness
As attorney general, Shapiro supported President Joe Biden’s proposal to make community colleges free and to make four-year public universities or colleges free for students from families earning less than $125,000.
In a March 2021 letter to the administration, Shapiro wrote that he “welcome President Biden’s commitment to consider using executive power to cancel student debt.”
Mastriano, in his July call for state-linked universities to freeze tuition fees, argued that “The unsustainable borrowing costs of student loans are making the dream of a college degree increasingly out of reach for many families.”
The state senator called Biden’s decision to forgive up to $20,000 in student loans as “irresponsible public spending”.
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