As lawmakers determine Pennsylvania’s 2022-23 budget, some Republicans are reconsidering their support for the University of Pittsburgh’s state funding.
The university has drawn fire from Republican representatives for its fetal tissue research and what they call a lack of transparency in usage of state funding.
Anti-abortion activists, including local and national Republicans, allege Pitt participated in illegal and unethical activities while university researchers conducted fetal tissue research with aborted fetuses obtained through UPMC.
Simultaneously, some local Republicans, led by Hempfield state Rep. Eric Nelson, aim to change the way Pennsylvania distributes funds to in-state college students.
Nelson supports a college voucher program, which would directly provide funds for all in-state students at Pennsylvania universities, colleges and technical schools.
Currently, Pitt and four other state-related universities receive state funding every year through nonpreferred appropriation bills passed in the state budget. A significant portion of this money goes toward these universities’ general support funding, which the schools then use toward tuition savings for in-state students.
The college voucher program would redirect more than $580 million that goes to Pitt, Penn State and Temple University, Nelson said.
State Rep. Matt Dowling, a Republican representing parts of Somerset and Fayette counties, voted against Pitt’s nonpreferred appropriation bill in 2021 because of the fetal tissue research. He plans to vote against funding for Pitt again and supports the college voucher program.
“If (Pitt) is not going to (stop fetal tissue research), I would rather fund the student than fund the university,” Dowling said.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive budget proposal for 2022-23 recommends a 5% increase in funding for higher education institutions. This would be the first funding increase for state-related universities since 2019.
If Wolf’s budget is approved, Pitt would receive more than $159 million in general support funding.
Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher sent a letter to the Pitt community recently warning in-state students that their tuition discount is at risk.
“Some House Republicans … are using unrelated issues as political bargaining chips to justify a failure to support Pitt students,” Gallagher wrote. “As a result, the appropriation bill’s passage is in jeopardy, and more than 21,000 Pitt students and their families could lose this needed tuition support.”
The letter did not specifically address the college voucher program or fetal tissue research.
In a statement, House Republican Caucus Spokesman Jason Gottesman said Gallagher’s claim “is not warranted.” Gottesman said the budget process is still in its infancy stages.
“Discussions continue about funding for all education needs, and the final decision about any spending will be made by the caucus and then the body as a whole,” Gottesman said via email. “Keep in mind: Any decision about whether or not to keep in-state tuition discounts is made by the University of Pittsburgh, not by the General Assembly.”
Pitt’s nonpreferred appropriation bill — which needs support from two-thirds of the General Assembly to pass — currently receives bipartisan backing from state senators, including Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Hempfield Republican.
The Legislature must adopt the 2022-23 budget by June 30.
For nearly 60 years, Pennsylvania has provided funding for state-related schools to offer in-state savings.
Compared to other states, Pennsylvania’s in-state tuition errs on the pricier side. The Keystone State’s in-state tuition averages $14,812, while the nationwide average was $9,212 in 2021.
Only two states — New Hampshire and Vermont — have more expensive in-state tuition than Pennsylvania.
Pitt’s in-state tuition for undergraduate students stands at $19,092. Gallagher said an in-state Pitt student saves about $15,000 in tuition each year.
However, Nelson questioned whether all of these savings come from the state or if any of the money is matched by Pitt. As a state-related school, Pitt is not subject to the Right-To-Know Law, meaning the public does not have access to its financial records.
There is precedent for a state-related university to match tuition savings, however. Penn State has said the general support funding it receives through the state budget amounts to about $5,400 in savings per in-state student annually.
Penn State more than doubles this amount, providing each in-state student with a tuition discount of about $13,300, as of 2021.
Under Nelson’s plan, Pennsylvanians who attend any in-state university, college or technical school would receive $8,000 each year if their household income is under $100,000, and $4,000 each year if their household income is under $250,000.
Nelson said he believes taxpayer money should go directly to student taxpayers and their families, not to universities.
“I’m not against the universities, I am for the families and the students,” Nelson said. “Why should the student not be the one to receive the funding directly?”
Dowling takes issue with state money supporting Pitt as long as the university conducts fetal tissue research.
The fetal tissue controversy stems from research that Pitt published in 2020 on grafting fetal organs to laboratory mice. In December, an independent law firm assessed Pitt’s research and found it was “fully compliant with applicable laws,” though critics claim the firm’s assessment is muddied by conflicts of interest and incomplete review.
The general support funding that Pitt receives for tuition savings does not pay for research. Dowling acknowledged this, but he still takes issue with Pitt receiving any support from Pennsylvania.
“The money in my right pocket and the money in my left pocket spend the same because they’re going into the same person’s pockets,” Dowling said. “I think it’s important to remember, for those of us who are adamantly pro-life, that these institutions are doing research that we just cannot condone as a Commonwealth.”