Pennsylvania’s Rising College Tuition Isn’t Helped by Outdated Construction Law

Recently Penn State University announced they approved a tuition increase for incoming students, joining Temple University and University of Pittsburgh. As families continue moving from a pandemic towards normalcy, I am sure the last thing they wanted, or expected, was to see the price tag of education to increase for their students.

A lot of costs go into the background of the high costs of college. Facilities management and maintenance are one important component. If construction procurement reform had been put in place, to put us in line with the rest of the country, I wonder if this tuition increase could have been avoided. As one of the last few states requiring the use of multiple prime contractors on each public construction project, and enforcing it more strictly than other states, Pennsylvania is stuck with an archaic business practice. Referred to in Pennsylvania as the Separations Act, this requirement was enacted in 1913.

So, what exactly is the Separations Act? And why should students at state-related universities care?

In essence, the Separations Act forces the public owner, like the state-related universities, to serve as the general contractor for a project and each of the multiple primes contracts directly to the public owner. Without a single entity directing the project and with plenty of finger-pointing, this is an inefficient contract delivery method fraught with problems such as delays and claims, which are the norms and culprits leading to public projects being over-budget.

This multiple prime delivery system is virtually nonexistence in the federal, private, residential, and commercial markets – and in fact when the state-related universities spend their own money for construction projects, they very rarely use multiple prime delivery because they want their money spent efficiently. Yet the state-related universities are forced by state law to use the multiple prime delivery system when it is building projects funded by the state.

On average, a multiple prime delivered project costs 10% more. For that reason it makes sense for these schools to avoid this process when spending money from alums and other contributors. One would think our legislature would have that same sentiment about taxpayers that these colleges have for their donors.  

It’s time to modernize the Separations Act by affording our public sector a list of proven delivery methods to select from. Construction is not a one-size fits all industry and there is no perfect delivery method. A construction client’s priorities (i.e., cost, quality, time, safety, etc.) vary from project to project and the customer should be allowed the opportunity to select the most appropriate delivery method for a particular project on a case-by-case basis. Senate Bill 823 of 2020 provided those options.

By no means am I saying that modernizing the Separations Act is the be-all end-all solution to stop tuition inflation, but when Pennsylvania knowingly operates inefficiently while my neighbors see a tuition increase at our fine state-related institutions, I feel inclined to speak up. Now is the ideal time to address inefficiencies in our procurement process on behalf of current and future college students.

Author: buildingpa

I am the proud father of three amazing daughters and I'm married to an awesome lady. When I'm not hanging with the family, I'm the executive director for the Keystone Contractors Association.

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