HARRISBURG — Despite the child sex abuse scandal that has haunted Pennsylvania State University for more than five years, and led to criminal prosecutions and sweeping changes to child protection laws, the university is failing to ensure that all counselors who oversee children in its youth camp programs have been properly vetted, a state audit released Thursday shows.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his auditors found that documentation of required background checks was missing nearly 8 percent of the time for counselors in the university's academic and sports camps for kids, some of whom are as young as 5.
Such an error rate means that, potentially, 57 of the 732 camps held last year employed at least one person missing one or more of the required clearances, which include a state police criminal-history check and an FBI background check. The audit did not examine whether Penn State hired anyone who should not have been working with children.
"One of the more distressing findings in this audit is that years after Jerry Sandusky's conviction for sexually assaulting young boys, Penn State fails to ensure the university conducts 100 percent of mandated background checks," said DePasquale, a Democrat. "In the post-Sandusky era, it would be expected that Penn State would be hyper-vigilant."
In a statement, Penn State officials said that even one missing or incomplete background check was too many, but also took issue with DePasquale's conclusion, calling it an "estimate" based on a small statistical sampling "and not based in fact."
The audit also took issue with the university's skyrocketing tuition. And it found that while the university has made changes to its governing structure, more reform is needed.
On the tuition front, auditors found that Penn State's price-tag spiked by 535 percent over the last 30 years — an increase driven in large part by construction costs and expansion to satellite campuses.
"Simply put, expenses are out of control," DePasquale said, adding that the university should create a task force to identify ways to lower costs that lead to tuition increases. He noted that state aid to the university has diminished in recent years.
The university, too, in its statement, noted that state support is less today than it was in 2001, and stated that if aid had kept up with the rate of inflation, tuition for in-state students today would be nearly 20 percent lower.
"Pennsylvania ranks among the lowest in the country in terms of state support for higher education," the statement said.
But DePasquale's audit noted that Penn State is part of a growing national trend among public research institutions of giving preference to out-of-state residents to increase tuition revenue.
From 1990 to last year, DePasquale's auditors found, in-state student enrollment dropped 12 percent, while out-of-state student enrollment increased 95 percent — and international student enrollment went up by 310 percent.
"There is a financial appeal to accepting out-of-state students," DePasquale said. "Whether intentional or not, it's happening."
Penn State pockets a larger amount for enrolling students from across the country and globe. The university makes almost $15,000 more off of out-of-state students than Pennsylvanians, the audit reports.
University officials, in their statement, countered that the percentage of in-state students admitted to Penn State has remained constant at 68 percent for 15 years.
On the issue of governance, DePasquale lit into the university for failing to follow many of the recommendations his predecessor, Jack Wagner, made in 2012, when the office did a special audit in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving the former assistant university football coach.
At the time, Wagner's office recommended among other things that Penn State sharply scale back the number of people on its board of trustees. Instead, DePasquale said, the board has grown.
A bigger board, he said, can translate into reduced accountability. He noted that some members of the current board, with 36 voting and two non-voting members, did not know that his office was working on an audit.
"We are not the NSA here, folks," DePasquale said. "This was not a secret. Our goal in doing this is to share the information."
Board chairman Ira Lubert took exception to the auditor general's assertion that the board is too large, saying other state-related universities including Temple and Pittsburgh have similar-size boards.
"Why isn't it a problem for Pitt and Temple?" he said.
He also said reducing the size of the board to 13 – a number suggested by DePasquale – "would be very difficult if not impossible," noting that Penn State is a $5 billion operation and requires more members to provide proper oversight.