Harrisburg proposes new policy offering free tuition to college students

Edward McFadden – Staff Writer

HARRISBURG, Pa – A new policy proposal in Harrisburg seeks to render higher education more affordable to Pennsylvanians and to alleviate the amassing collective student debt statewide.   

This Pennsylvania Promise Plan, if enacted, would provide two years of community college, or four years of university education free of tuition and fees to students of certain income brackets.   

Representatives from the Keystone Research Center and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center joined with the Association of Pennsylvania Colleges and University Faculties President Ken Mash and State Legislators to announce the proposal at a press conference January 23.   

Recent high school graduates under the plan would become eligible to receive two years of tuition and fees free of charge for an education from any of the 14 community colleges in the state system.   

Alternatively, students would not have to pay for these expenses for four years at Clarion, or any other one of the 13 universities that make up the state system, contingent on familial income of $110,000 or less per year.   

Returning adult students need not fret. For those who have long been out of high school, the State would offer an assortment of grants.   

“Priority [is] given to those seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials such as apprenticeships,” the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center’s press release states.  

Policymakers from the bipartisan economic research institutes were careful to point out some limitations. The plan would not make higher education free of all cost to the students.   

Total cost, comprised of tuition, fees, housing, transportation, books, meal plans and other assorted costs would fall about 34 percent for students of universities in the state system and 24 percent for those in community colleges, according to predictions in the report.  

Stephen Herzenburg, director of the Keystone Research Institute and co-author of the report sees the proposal as overdue for the commonwealth.    

Statistics show that over half of the counties in Pennsylvania rank lower than West Virginia, the state recently ranked worst for population of educated workers, Herzenberger added.  

Pennsylvania, he said, ranks 47 out of the 50 states for investment in higher education. The proposal suggests that the $1 billion dollar increase in funding would boost the Commonwealth to 36out of 50.  

No formal plan for funding the Pennsylvania Promise Plan has emerged yet.

The authors of the plan, however, compare the proposal to such similar plans as the Tennessee Promise Plan.   The Tennessee Promise Plan receives this funding from a financial endowment, and works with nonprofit organizations in that state.  

Pennsylvania’s plan comes amid a trend of dropping enrollment and consequent flaccid funding for state schools.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that total enrollment in the state has dropped every year since 2010.    Some reporters speculate that the above-average cost of attending university in Pennsylvania is partly to blame.

USA Today published a study in 2016 showing Pennsylvania as second leading state in average student loan debt upon graduation at almost $22,000 per student.    Only 29 percent of Pennsylvania  undergraduate students graduate debt-free.  

“After running the numbers, the question that emerges is, ‘What are we waiting for?’” said the authors of the report.   “Anyone who cares about Pennsylvania,” they continued, “particularly those parts of the state underserved by affordable, accessible higher education – most of the state outside the Philadelphia metro area and parts of the Pittsburgh metro area – should be leading the charge for Pennsylvania to enact the Pennsylvania Promise.”  

A webinar on the plan concluded with Mark Price, labor economist of the Keystone Research Center saying that the State has not adopted this policy as legislation yet, but that supporters of the plan are working on it.   

Another staffer referred to the issue of funding as a “major hurdle” to jump over, and suggested that the conceptualized means for funding the policy presented in the webinar would be subject to discussion in state legislature.   

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