'Hurst takes hit from proposed state budget cuts

The 2011 Pennsylvania state budget proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett has created a stir in universities across the commonwealth and could reduce funding to Mercyhurst.

Overall, schools in Pennsylvania were funded with about $11.5 billion during the 2010-2011 academic year, but Corbett’s new plan calls for a funding cut of about $1.5 billion. More than $650 million of that amount includes the cuts for Pennsylvania colleges and universities.

With 17 state universities and over 25 additional semi-public universities, the majority of the cuts will affect these institutions. The 75-plus private colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, including Mercyhurst, will see very little change from these proposed cuts as they receive very little state funding.

Still, there may be an impact of up to $350,000 to Mercyhurst.

“Most of the aid that Mercyhurst receives from the state comes to our lower and middle income students in the way of PHEAA grants,” said Vice President for Enrollment Michael Lyden, Ph.D. “This year, for example, about one half of our students on the Erie campus are Pennsylvania residents and the majority of these students received PHEAA grants totaling $1.7 million.”

“It’s a misconception that private schools serve only affluent students,” President Thomas Gamble, Ph.D., said.

The governor did not cut any money out of the PHEAA grant funds, nor did he add any money to those funds.

“Governor Corbett has proposed ‘level funding’ for PHEAA grants in his budget,” said Lyden. “However, if the number of PHEAA-eligible students in the state increases next year, the average grant will decrease.”

In other words, the proposed level funding will not account for any change in demand for PHEAA grant money and could dilute the amount of money that students get from this year to next.

Pennsylvania also provides money to private institutions through the Institutional Assistance Grant (IAG), which is where Mercyhurst will see its loss in funding.

“The amount is based on the number of PHEAA–eligible students who attend the College,” said Lyden. “In 2009, Mercyhurst received a $1.1 million IAG grant.”

That was cut to $700,000 in the current year, and would be halved again to $350,000 next year under Corbett’s proposal, Gamble said.

“These are funds that are used by the college to help cover operating expenses and any reduction in the IAG grant will need to be offset by reductions in other areas of our budget,” Lyden said.

Much of the money ends up in student financial aid packages to help offset tuition, Gamble said.

When considering the budget cuts, Director of Admissions Christopher Coons is not worried about the effects it will have on attracting prospective students.

“It will affect how we market and recruit students,” said Coons. “We’ll need to continue to highlight the quality and value of a Mercyhurst education and promote this message into all of our communication strategies.”

Mercyhurst admits students based on their academic abilities, not the ability to pay in what Coons calls a “need-blind” system.

“Mercyhurst is a ‘need-blind’ institution, which means we don’t accept students to Mercyhurst based on financial ability,” said Coons. “We use the following factors when admitting students to Mercyhurst: high school transcript, ACT/SAT scores, college preparatory coursework, letters of recommendation and extracurricular involvement.”

Students who receive PHEAA grants are concerned about the funding cuts and thinking of alternate plans to come up with the money supplied by the grants.

Freshman Mike Pollard said, “It would be significantly more difficult to afford college without my PHEAA grants because Mercyhurst is such an expensive school.”

Freshman Brett Ambrose said, “I will mostly have to work harder over the summer and pick up more hours during the school year to make up for the money provided by my PHEAA grants if they get cut.”

Others are worried about the effect the lack of grant money could have on their grades.

“With the cut, I’ll have to work while in school, and with a hard major like biology, working while in school will sufficiently affect my grades and my GPA and possibly even my graduate school acceptance,” freshman Owen Corcoran said.

The bottom line is not all students at Mercyhurst are from Pennsylvania, as admissions does recruit throughout the tri-state region and across the country.

“We’ve hired a representative in the New England region who has done a good job promoting Mercyhurst and enrolling students from the area,” said Coons. “Additionally, we are enrolling students from Ohio, New York, New Jersey, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and the West Coast.”

With the tradition of Mercyhurst and the growing admission of students in and out of state, Coons remains confident in what they are doing.

“If we promote the message that we are an institution of the highest quality with great faculty, great programs, great facilities, great athletics, etc… then I think students will continue to enroll here,” Coons said.