Pa. fail­ing col­lege stu­dents in costs and aid

The Review - - OPINION -

Penn­syl­va­nia falls last or near the bot­tom among states in a num­ber of rank­ings in­clud­ing share of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, school fund­ing eq­uity and jobs cre­ation.

Clearly th­ese rank­ings do not speak well for the fu­ture of young peo­ple.

Add to that one rank­ing in which Penn­syl­va­nia comes in first: Penn­syl­va­nia had the high­est av­er­age student debt in the na­tion in 2017.

Ac­cord­ing to a study by LendEDU, as re­ported by Watch­dog.org, Penn­syl­va­nia stu­dents car­ried an av­er­age of $36,193 in debt last year, more than $800 higher than the sec­ond-high­est state, Rhode Is­land. Ac­cord­ing to LendEDU, the Penn­syl­va­nia fig­ure was a 2.87 per­cent in­crease from 2016. The na­tional av­er­age is $28,288, up ab out 1.12 per­cent from 2016.

“Student loan debt in the U.S. con­tin­ues to be an is­sue of the ut­most im­por­tance,” LendEDU noted in its re­port. “The total out­stand­ing student loan debt now stands at to $1.52 tril­lion, mak­ing it the sec­ond largest form of con­sumer debt be­hind only mort­gages.”

Na­tion­ally, about 58 per­cent of 2017 grad­u­ates car­ried debt, but in Penn­syl­va­nia that num­ber jumped to 67 per­cent.

Are Penn­syl­va­nia col­lege stu­dents worse at man­ag­ing money or sav­ing for col­lege than their coun­ter­parts in other states?

That’s doubt­ful.

The an­swer more likely is in Penn­syl­va­nia’s high tu­ition costs.

The av­er­age an­nual in-state col­lege tu­ition in Penn­syl­va­nia was $21,071 for the 2016-17 aca­demic year. This is $7,129 higher than the U.S. av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to Col­legeCalc, a web­site that com­pares tu­ition prices across the coun­try.

This places Penn­syl­va­nia as the 5th most ex­pen­sive state for higher ed­u­ca­tion for state res­i­dents and near the bot­tom (48th) among states for an af­ford­able ed­u­ca­tion. (More of those damn­ing rank­ings.)

In this at­mos­phere, one might think there would be an ef­fort to con­trol or lower the costs of in-state tu­ition.

In­stead, the Penn­syl­va­nia State Sys­tem of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion voted in July to in­crease tu­ition for in-state stu­dents by 3 per­cent.

The boards of Penn State and the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh voted not to in­crease tu­ition for the 201819 school year. Those in­sti­tu­tions fall into the cat­e­gory of state-re­lated schools that re­ceive some fund­ing from the state but are not part of the PASSHE sys­tem.

Penn State — which has the high­est an­nual in-state costs of any pub­lic univer­sity in the na­tion at $36,3442 — last year cre­ated a task force to explore ways to keep costs down with­out sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity. The task force is work­ing with a con­sul­tant to an­a­lyze costs and rev­enue and look for sav­ings.

Th­ese high costs have prompted an­other move in the Leg­is­la­ture where a bill has been pro­posed to pro­vide free tu­ition to stu­dents at­tend­ing state schools.

The pro­gram, called Penn­syl­va­nia Prom­ise, would be ad­min­is­tered by the Penn­syl­va­nia Higher Ed­u­ca­tion As­sis­tance Agency to cover two years of tu­ition and fees for re­cent high school grad­u­ates at­tend­ing one of the 14 com­mu­nity col­leges and four years of tu­ition and fees at a sta­te­owned or state-re­lated univer­sity for stu­dents with a fam­ily in­come of $110,000 or less per year.

Stu­dents whose fam­ily in­come is $48,000 or less would also be el­i­gi­ble for as­sis­tance with costs as­so­ci­ated with room and board.

The bill has 23 cospon­sors — 22 Democrats and one Repub­li­can, Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Hat­boro — and is cur­rently await­ing con­sid­er­a­tion in the House Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee.

The pro­gram, de­spite a pro­jected $1 bil­lion pric­etag, is not out of line with pro­grams of­fered in other states, even in those where tu­ition is more af­ford­able.

We urge Penn­syl­va­nia law­mak­ers and lead­ers in higher ed­u­ca­tion to take dras­tic steps to make col­lege af­ford­able for state res­i­dents.

We urge lead­ers to seek cre­ative so­lu­tions, such as in­cen­tives to schools that hold the line on tu­ition, in­creased aid to fam­i­lies of low- and mid­dlein­come, and an all-out com­mit­ment from both ed­u­ca­tors and law­mak­ers to drive down in-state costs.

It’s time to level the play­ing field and de­liver on the prom­ise of a pros­per­ous fu­ture to the next gen­er­a­tion.

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