March 14, 2011 at 10:17 AM
I've been aching to do something like this for awhile. Ever since I saw The New York Times' budget puzzle (to which I give full credit for the idea and interface), I've thought such an interactive would be a cool idea for Penn State, but I'd kind of shelved the idea earlier in the semester to wait for an appropriate news hook.
Governor Corbett graciously provided such a hook to me with his proposed budget for 2011-2012. As soon as I heard about this, I began scouring http://www.budget.psu.edu and trying to consolidate a massive amount of data.
Penn State's total budget for this year is in fact $4.0 billion, but this appropriations cut mostly affects our general fund, which amounts to $1.8 billion. The other budget categories are either largely self-sustainable (Hershey Medical: $1.1 billion, Auxiliary Enterprises: $340 million) or restricted in how they can be spent (Restricted Funds: $661 million, Federal Agricultural Funds: $20 million).
I opted to just work with the General Funds budget. This year, most of the state appropriation ($290 million out of $318 million, or about 91%) went to the general funds budget. Assuming that percentage remains the same, that means that of the $153 million cut, roughly $140 million of it will be cut from the general budget. In addition, federal stimulus funds ($15 million) ran out this year, so I added that and came up with the $155 million figure that the interactive asks you to cut.
Determining tuition was harder than it should have been - all of the totals I could find combined the fees with the flat tuition figure. My only option was to go to the line item income summary (around 400 items), and filter out both the in-state and out-of-state items. A few regex replaces later, I had a nice addition problem and found that the base tuition alone generates just under $1.1 billion for the general fund ($744 million in state, $346 million out of state). That gave me all the data I needed for the tuition section.
After tuition, all of the remaining adjustment options needed to be cuts of some sort. The university's budget is very large and complex, so I had to narrow things down a few categories which seemed most relevant and understandable to readers. This meant excluding (for the sake of this interactive) cuts to any of the academic and administrative support units. Obviously these are large categories, but it's less clear what effect cutting them would have. To cover part of those areas, I opted to include two across-the-board cuts (Research and Student Aid), and also provided the option to adjust salaries for employees in all of these areas.
Finally I got down to the meat of things - the cut Graham Spanier had alluded to in his response to the proposal. Getting the figures for the commonwealth campuses and academic departments wasn't too hard - they're all clearly listed. I elected to exclude the administrative departments in most of the academic colleges for the same reason as above - it's unclear what effect cutting them would have.
The hardest thing to account for in this interactive were the external costs associated with cutting a department or campus. For example, if you were to close the Comparative Literature department, you would recoup much of that department's costs, but some of it would have to go to other departments which might pick up classes, students, and faculty left behind by the department's closing. Similarly, if you close a branch campus, you also lose that branch campus' tuition income, or students may instead choose to go to some other campus, increasing that campus' cost.
There's no simple way to figure this out, but I had to come up with a figure. I decided that cutting an academic department would allow you to recoup 80% of its costs, and cutting a campus would recoup 70% of its costs. I suspect these numbers may be a bit high, and they certainly would vary extensively depending on what exactly is being cut, but the purpose of this interactive is to get the general idea, not the exact figure.
A final note: Obviously, many of the areas I excluded from this interactive will be on the table for cutting or trimming, and I'm sure that the externalities will vary greatly depending on what the university chooses to cut. This interactive is not, and was never meant to be a precise calculator of our budget. Rather, the goal of it is to give readers a sense of the magnitude of the appropriations cut because admittedly, 4% of the budget doesn't sound too terrible at face value. It only becomes clear how harsh a cut that is when you see how the money is usually spent.
If you think any of the choices I made are way off or don't make sense, feel free to let me know on this post.