State budget cuts nationwide have forced many institutions of higher education to raise tuition and fees.

Bill Schackner of the Pittsburgh Gazette takes a look at one Pennsylvania campus that takes a fiscally conservative approach to finances in a way that brings big benefits to its students instead.

Clarion University has an attractive, if modest-sized, student union with a ground-level food court, an airy atrium with overstuffed chairs and Wi-Fi access.

The campus has a 3-year-old science and technology center with smart classrooms and labs.

It has a student recreation center with an elevated running track, rows of cardio machines and, yes, a climbing wall, too.

What the campus of 6,500 students does not have is debt — at least not nearly as much as its sister schools across the State System of Higher Education.

As some of those campuses increased borrowing for capital projects by up to ninefold the last decade — and erected buildings far more elaborate than those found here — Clarion took a more conservative approach.

Instead of replacing all of its traditional dorms with upscale suites, Clarion embarked on a slower transition. The school flirted with a $40 million replacement of the building that houses its intercollegiate sports programs but has opted instead for a planned renovation at half the price.

It weighed building a garage that would have upped parking fees $60 a year but decided instead on a surface lot that limited the rate hike to $30.

Clarion makes no secret that in a bad economy — with enrollment down and state budget cuts in force — it prefers the $2.1 million in yearly debt service awaiting it to annual obligations of up to $11 million facing other State System schools.

“It’s good to be low debt,” Clarion President Karen Whitney said.

Clarion last year was the fourth-lowest priced of the 14 State System schools, with total cost of attendance averaging $15,760 a year, including tuition, fees, room and board, $758 less than the systemwide average. While many factors affect campus price, the amount of student fees assessed to help pay off construction debt is one of them.

Nevertheless, at times, “it’s a mixed blessing,” said Paul Bylaska, the school’s vice president for finance and administration.

“Yes, it has been a conscious philosophy to avoid borrowing more unless it’s really prudent,” he said. “On the other hand, when competing for students and sometimes competing based on amenities, it can come back to haunt you.”