The Pennsylvania Promise – Affordable College for all Pennsylvanians

Diana Polson |

Pennsylvania is barreling towards a future where only the descendants of the well-off will have access to quality higher education. Or perhaps we are already there. See the figure below, which shows high performing, high-income youth are more likely (74%) than high scoring, low-income youth (41%) to complete college (columns in blue):

Those from families with modest means, if they do choose college, will likely graduate riddled with debt that follows them in the decades to come. Take Daniel Le, a sophomore psychology major at Shippensburg University  one the colleges in Pennsylvania’s state system of higher education  and member of Pennsylvania Student Power Network:

I grew up in a poor city (Reading, Pennsylvania), with a poor family. I love going to college but it’s financially destroying my family. I’m $30,000 in debt and I’m not even half way through undergraduate. My mom grew up very poor and never had the means to go to college but when she was 33 she found a way to make it happen. Six years later she graduated with an Associates and a Bachelors. She inspired me to go to college to better my situation and my family’s situation. But that’s not all that is happening. Tuition is digging my family into a new hole. Some days writing a paper or going to class seems like an impossible task when all I can think about is the parent plus loan that my mom had to sign for me to go to college. I get endless feelings of guilt and regret about going to college, something that I’m supposed to feel great about and feel proud of.

Over the last six months, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) and the Keystone Research Center (KRC) have produced several reports documenting the abysmal job Pennsylvania is doing in terms of investing in higher education for our state’s youth. To give you a sense:

  • U.S. News and World Report ranks Pennsylvania dead last for higher education after 35 years of state disinvestment, high levels of student debt and the state’s high tuition and fees.
  • In terms of per capita investment in higher education, Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 states (at $132.44 per capita investment), which is about half of the U.S. national average (at $259.18 per capita).
  • Pennsylvania ranks 40th for the share of adults 25-64 with more than a high school education. Worse, more than half of Pennsylvania’s counties ranked below even the last place state, West Virginia. A large body of economic research shows that lagging educational attainment results in lower wages and incomes for individuals and slower economic growth for regions.

This week KRC and PBPC released a plan to reverse Pennsylvania’s disinvestment in higher education and begin to create a future where higher education and workforce training are more affordable, and therefore more accessible, for residents of our state.

Called the Pennsylvania Promise, the plan:

  • covers two years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate (regardless of family income) enrolled full-time at one of the Commonwealth’s 14 public community colleges;
  • covers four years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate with a family income less than or equal to $110,000 per year accepted into one of the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education;
  • provides four years of grants ranging from $2,000 up to $11,000, depending on family income, for students accepted into a state-related University;
  • finances the expansion of grant assistance to adults seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials, as well as college credit.

This plan would make Pennsylvania Promise grants the “last dollar” of tuition and fees remaining after accounting for all other federal, state or institutional grants awarded to a student, similar to plans in New York, Tennessee and Oregon. The plan calls for the establishment of the Office of Income Mobility which would be located within the Department of Education and coordinate strategies with colleges, high schools and local communities to lower barriers to college attendance for high achieving low- and middle-income students.

The Pennsylvania Promise plan also includes potential strategies to fund such legislation, which we estimate will cost the state $1.16 billion. We recommend establishing a special fund to be earmarked for the PA Promise, managed by the Commonwealth. This establishes a direct link between increased taxes and services funded by those increases. See the Pennsylvania Promise plan for more details on potential funding strategies.

Like most public policies, the Pennsylvania Promise is about our values as a state. Do we want to make college affordable and accessible to young Pennsylvanians regardless of their family’s income? Do we want to ensure poor and middle class youth have access to the American Dream of upward mobility? Do we want our economy to thrive because we invest in the education and training of our future workforce?

As Daniel Le simply stated: “We need to fix college. We need to save the next generation’s future. Education should not be a privilege, it should be a right.”