CLARION, Pa. -- 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."
Given Western Pennsylvania's shrinking population and a drop in statewide high school graduation rates, Clarion faces a nagging worry whenever it recruits: "Are we able to be sure we have made the case that students should come here as opposed to going somewhere else?" Mr. Bylaska asked.
Ten years ago, Clarion carried debt totaling $14.2 million. As of June 30 of this year, the total stood 5 percent higher at just under $15 million, a fraction of the $111 million faced by Kutztown University, the school with the biggest debt in the State System.
Elsewhere in the State System, schools have increased borrowing dramatically, in large part to compete with campuses already able to attract students not only based on academics but on top-notch amenities from suite-style apartments and dance studios to meeting venues with sweeping campus vistas.
The State System as a whole has seen its borrowing double in 10 years to $942 million, according to data reviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The total does not include privatized debt that university-affiliated groups have taken on for student housing and other projects. Moody's Investors Service puts the privatized debt at nearly $1 billion.
Drive onto Clarion's campus of brick buildings set against rolling hills and wooded stretches and one gets the impression of a campus as attractive as its sister universities that have higher debt. But there is no brand new convocation center, which means commencements and other large-scale events are held at such venues as Tippin Gymnasium, built in 1975.
Conspicuously large plazas do not seem to be part of the campus layout.
"You're not going to see a waterfall here. That's for sure," quipped Mr. Bylaska, a playful reference to a half-million dollar display outside Slippery Rock University's new student center.
Ms. Whitney, Clarion's president for 26 months, said the campus for decades has reflected the sensibilities of the surrounding community. "It's very much a pay-as-you-go community, a modest community," she said.
The university knows that facilities are one of the top reasons cited year after year by prospective students in explaining why they considered Clarion but enrolled elsewhere. But she said that shortcoming is balanced against the importance of keeping Clarion affordable not only for its wealthier students but for those for whom the campus already is a stretch.
Sitting in the top floor of Clarion's science and technology building, Kiara Brown, 20, a senior psychology major from East Hills, said amenities on some campuses she has visited "just blow you away."
During a recent visit to her boyfriend at California University of Pennsylvania, she looked out a window and thought to herself, "This is so nice.' They have electronic signs telling you what's going on that day, they have lights, fountains, statues everywhere."
But Clarion, she said, has more green space than other campuses. "In the spring, it's very pretty -- the trees, the grass, the flowers."
And besides, she added, "It's not just about the attractiveness of the university. It's about the other stuff that it has to offer."
Jourdan Blanding, 20, a junior from Harrisburg, said the amenities are more than adequate, although Clarion is not a place where one looks at something and says, "Wow, that's where they spent their money."
On a scale of 1 to 10, "it's not a 5," he said. "It's a 7."
A $10.3 million dining hall replacement illustrates how Clarion planned ahead to hold down borrowing.
Before work on Eagle Commons began, the school already had a quarter of the construction cost accounted for, including $1.5 million in reserves and a $1.2 million contribution from its food service contractor. It lowered to about $7.6 million the amount of State System bond debt needed to finance the work.
The new hall resulted in a 1 percent, or $20, increase annually in meal plan prices.
If Clarion could spend more, Ms. Whitney said, she might order up facilities that would better link the campus. "If I could wave a magic wand and say, gosh, this would be a real benefit to the institution, I think spaces -- indoor and outdoor spaces -- that really help strengthen the community and provide for informal learning opportunities" would be useful, she said.
Still, she and other leaders say they are proud of what they have accomplished and that includes their approach to borrowing.
Debt is neither good nor bad but simply a tool that "must be used in a laser-focused way," Ms. Whitney said. "Did it get you what you want? That's the litmus test."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977. First Published October 8, 2012 4:00 AM