In the battle for first place, there's one competition neither University of Pittsburgh nor Penn State University is eager to win: Who has the highest tuition.
They were the two most expensive public universities in the country, according to the most recent data from 2011-12 released by the U.S. Department of Education, which showed that Pitt topped the charts as the most expensive.
And based on tuition increases announced Wednesday by Pitt and last Friday by Penn State, it is unlikely either school will fall dramatically in the rankings, according to Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education.
"There's no question that Pitt and Penn State are among the most expensive public schools in the country," he said.
At Pitt, tuition jumped 3.25 percent to $16,240 for in-state students at the main Oakland campus in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the university's largest school. At Penn State, University Park students will pay 3.39 percent more. For many, that will mean a sticker price of $16,090 for their first two years and $17,396 for the last two, because the university has tiered pricing that bumps up the cost for upperclassmen.
The sputtering economy has made it increasingly difficult for many families to keep up with tuition increases, which have outpaced the consumer price index, Mr. Hartle said.
"If we had GDP growth of 3 percent and income growth of 2 percent, things wouldn't look so bad," he said. "That's not happening here."
Both universities argued that rising costs -- including health care and energy -- were reasons to increase tuition. But both cited flat funding from the state as a significant factor.
"Schools that are usually at the top for highest tuition are at the lowest end for state support," said Penn State spokesman Reidar Jensen. "There's a link."
Kenneth Service, the executive director at the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education and soon-to-be vice chancellor for communications at Pitt, echoed the sentiment that Pennsylvania's commitment to higher education is lacking.
Asked whether he is worried that students will increasingly choose state system schools such as Kutztown or Indiana University of Pennsylvania -- which charge thousands of dollars less -- over universities like Pitt and Penn State, Mr. Service said, "It's apples to oranges. The University of Pittsburgh is a major national research institution."
Frustration with state funding isn't unwarranted.
In Pennsylvania, primary and secondary education, medicaid and the prison system all tend to be prioritized above higher education, Mr. Hartle said.
Pennsylvania ranks 47th in terms of state support for higher education per capita, according to Jeff Lieberson, a spokesman at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, who cited an Illinois State University study.
Between 2007 and 2012, state funding per student for higher education fell by 32 percent, Mr. Hartle said. Nationally, funding per student slipped 22 percent.
Representatives from Gov. Tom Corbett's office could not be immediately reached for comment.
Students on both campuses expressed frustration with the tuition increases, but many still said they thought the education they were getting was worth the financial cost.
"It shows that public universities -- including Pitt -- are abandoning their commitment to affordable, accessible education," said Simon Brown, a rising Pitt junior who studies history and philosophy.
He said he expects his debt to be about $15,000 upon graduation, but despite criticisms of Pitt's commitment to affordable public education and what he sees as an overly bureaucratic administrative structure, Mr. Brown is happy with the education he's getting.
Few people knock the quality of education at either school.
"Despite the high price for Pennsylvania residents, Pitt and Penn State are world class institutions," Mr. Hartle said. "They are certainly worth it."
Alex Zimmerman: email@example.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.