Pathway to the PA Promise of Affordable College & Good Paying Careers—With Federal Dollars

Stephen Herzenberg |

As Pennsylvania state budget negotiations come to a close, our lawmakers could achieve a big win by adopting Governor Wolf’s higher education proposal. This win would be a major step towards the PA Promise of affordable college tuition and good-paying careers—and paid for in significant part with federal dollars. This win would be especially beneficial to rural Pennsylvanians and could also help meet businesses’ skill needs in occupations that pay family-supporting wages. It should have overwhelming bipartisan support.

Pennsylvania students under-draw federal Pell grants to the tune of $271 million annually

A key element of this opportunity, not widely recognized, is that low numbers of students at Pennsylvania public colleges currently access federal (Pell) grants for college. As a group, our public college students access $271 million less than our per capita share of all Pell grants used by students at public colleges across all 50 states. Governor Wolf’s proposal for higher education funding could trigger more Pennsylvania students to apply for Pell grants to attend college, drawing down part of this $271 million currently left on the federal table. The governor’s proposal would do this because it includes $200 million in state funding for (“Nellie Bly”) scholarships to attend college. These scholarships would be “last dollar”—they would fill the gap between the non-state financial aid available to students and tuition, fees, and other costs of college. In other words, to access the state scholarships, students would have to first secure their federal Pell grant.

Why PA students under-draw Pell grants: high tuition and swiss cheese community colleges

Why do Pennsylvania students under-draw federal support to attend public colleges? The explanation for this little-known fact is very well known: Pennsylvania drastically underfunds higher education and has a big geographic hole in its community colleges coverage of the state.

  • In 2020-21 (the latest available data), Pennsylvania ranked 47th out of the 50 states for investment in higher education per capita, investing $143 per capita, half the national average of $288 and under a quarter of Wyoming’s investment, for example, in part with funds from a natural gas severance tax. (Hmmm…a topic for another day.)
  • Pennsylvania therefore has high tuition at all public colleges, including community colleges and four-year schools. For example, as the first figure below shows, we have the highest tuition at public four-year universities for whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.
  • In addition, as the second figure below shows, well over 20 of PA’s 67 counties do not even have a branch campus of a community college. (The figure shows 28 but needs updating to show Erie’s community college; it may need other updates.) The figure shows another 22 counties with an instructional site but “out-of-district tuition”—students therefore must pay roughly twice as much because they do not benefit from their county making any contribution to the college.










Community Colleges and Instructional Sites in Pennsylvania

*Dauphin, Cumberland, and Perry Counties share a community college district, as do Lehigh and Carbon. Students in these counties pay in-district rates whether they have a primary campus in their county or not.

Source: Ginger Stull et al., “College Affordability in PA: How Did We Get Here, and What Can Be Done?” November 2016, p. 16.

The lack of community coverage in rural Pennsylvania is well understood by our state legislature. A decade ago, in a report requested by then president pro tem of the Senate, Joseph Scarnati, the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee (LBFC) reported (p. S-11) that “Michigan is the only major state we identified, other than Pennsylvania, which does not have public community colleges strategically available throughout the state…Michigan estimates 73 percent of its citizens live in a community college district. In Pennsylvania, about 60 percent of its citizens live in a taxing district with a community college sponsor.” The LBFC also notes (p. 36) that, in 2010, “counties with community college main campuses had significantly higher fall enrollment than those without. With one exception (Cambria), all the counties with community college main campuses had more than 1,200 full-time students enrolled in fall 2010. Over 80 percent (21 of 26) of the rural counties in Pennsylvania had 50 or fewer students enrolled in credit bearing courses” at one of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges. These numbers mean, in essence, that very few students from these counties draw down federal Pell grants.

Another way to see these counties low use of Pell grants is in the map below, which shows what percentage of high school seniors in each of our 500 school districts complete “FAFSA” forms to apply for federal assistance to attend college. In Pennsylvania’s northern tier, most districts are shaded yellow or brown, meaning less than half, and sometimes less than 20 percent of students complete FAFSA forms. In SE PA and Allegheny County—and neighboring New Jersey—school districts are mostly shaded green, meaning 50 percent to 70 percent of students complete FAFSA forms. Pennsylvania’s rural counties look like northern West Virginia. New York’s southern tier looks like a blend of Pennsylvania rural areas and SE PA/western NJ.

With few students applying for federal financial assistance in rural areas—and tuition high everywhere so no school districts are dark green or blue—Pennsylvania students at public colleges draw only $465 million, not the $737 million that is our per capita share (based on the 19- to 34-year-old population).


How the 2022-23 budget could increase enrollment and Pell Grants at public colleges


Governor Wolf’s 2022-23 budget proposal would increase funding for Pennsylvania public colleges in various ways.

  • Providing a $75 million increase in funding for PASSHE, which had been flat funded for the last three years at $477 million. State System funding would finally surpass the prior nominal dollar peak, $524 million in 2008-09.
  • In addition to this funding increase via the General Fund, the State System has received a commitment of $200 million in American Rescue Plan funds to be used to help the state system complete its mergers of two groups of three campuses. Of that, $50 million was allocated in 2021-22 and the governor’s budget proposes that the rest—$150 million—be allocated for 2022-23.
  • Community colleges and Pennsylvania’s state-related universities would see a 5% increase in their budgets from the state if Governor Wolf’s proposal is enacted.

The funding for the State System should help moderate tuition increases and increase enrollment.

The critical funding with respect to Pell grants is an additional $200 million investment in needs-based tuition through Nellie Bly Tuition scholarships for full-time students to attend State System schools or community colleges in fields critical to Pennsylvania’s future such as public service, health care or education. As noted earlier, state funds would be “last dollar”—i.e., fill the gap between the financial aid available to students and tuition, fees, or other costs of college. Students would be required to stay in the state for as many years after graduating as they benefitted from the program. If they leave the state early the grants will be converted to (interest-free) loans. According to a legislative memo, these funds would cover 44,000 students:

Nellie Bly: step 1 of systemic reform to “leapfrog” PA higher education to the front of the class

Nellie Bly scholarships can and should be step 1 of a higher education system reform that leapfrogs Pennsylvania higher education from 21st century laggard to leader. The core elements of a 21st century higher education system are straightforward:

  • statewide coverage of community colleges;
  • systemwide articulation between community colleges and state system schools;
  • free tuition for working families (e.g., with income below $104,800, the cutoff for Nellie Bly eligibility, indexed to the growth of state median income) and affordable (“single” not “double”) tuition for all—in effect, implementation of the PA Promise outlined by KRC in 2016 and now embodied in proposed legislation;
  • tighter linkages between education and the economy, including but not only through apprenticeship, giving students the option of success via college and career and boosting work-relevant skills.

In the build out of a statewide community college system, Pennsylvania can design a delivery system that blends in person and digital classes—as the Northern PA Regional College has been seeking to do ( Pennsylvania should also address the gaping inequality in compensation between tenured and tenure track faculty and other (part-time, fixed term, and graduate student).

To move in this direction as the state implements Nellie Bly scholarships, the state should provide program development funding to set up Pell-eligible programs in the state’s higher education desserts. The state could designate one entity to do this in each county without even branch campuses of community colleges (e.g., community colleges in neighboring counties, local partnerships that have been building the case for a community college, the Northern PA Rural Regional College, community education councils) using a competitive process where it makes sense and won’t duplicate effort. These entities could be asked to submit a plan for creating a locally sponsored community college within a decade. Apprenticeship programs articulated with college credit could also receive some program development funds to set up satellite/hybrid programs in higher education desserts.

This statewide system building would benefit from existing efforts to develop system-wide articulation between community colleges and State System schools. It should also form the core of the state’s updated higher education plan, currently under development.