Bills providing free, reduced-price college for PA students deserve a look

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When it comes to the commitment the commonwealth makes to all its students, the language in the Pennsylvania Constitution is as unambiguous as it gets:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth," Section 14 of the state's foundational document reads.

But for some Pennsylvania students attending the commonwealth's 14 state-owned universities, its community colleges and state-related universities, that promise of a thorough and efficient education remains frustratingly out of reach - even if their tax dollars are being used to fund them.

A trio of Philadelphia lawmakers stepped forward this week with a plan that they hope will help narrow the breach by providing a free, or nearly free, college education to tens of thousands of students across Pennsylvania.

The “PAPromise" would:

Cover up to 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 at one of the 14 universities in Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education or a state-related university.

Cover room and board for any recent high school graduate with a family income less than or equal to $48,000 per year at a community college, state-owned or state-related institution.

Provide additional funding to increase access to adults seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials, as well as college credit.

Provide additional funding to increase access to apprenticeship programs.

Finally, provide additional funding to supplement federal work study money.

The need is indeed real.

Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer support, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University topped a list of the nation's most expensive public universities.

It's no surprise, then, to find that, at $34,798, Pennsylvania students have the nation's second-highest student debt in the country, according to a 2017 rankings list by the financial literacy site WalletHub.

The state ranked third for the percentage of students with college loans (71 percent). That debt devoured 41 percent of their income.

“I had to rely on my friends to help feed me," Annie Reynolds, a senior at Penn State-Harrisburg, said during a Capitol news conference formally unveiling the companion House and Senate bills behind the plan.

The lawmakers sponsoring the bills, Democratic Reps. James Roebuck and Jordan Harris along with Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, acknowledged Wednesday that they had yet to find a funding source for their ambitious, $800 million proposal.

So it's tempting to dismiss these bills as a bit of election year posturing from a minority party looking to maximize its gains in November. And while a community college education should be free, the $110,000 threshold for the state schools seems optimistically high.

Even so, as Roebuck observed, it is on the state to make sure it turns out workers who have the skills and education that will attract high-end employers to Pennsylvania. And if those graduates aren't saddled with crushing debt, all the better.

“Graduates should be able to concentrate on getting good jobs and starting families, not be concerned with drowning in debt for years to come," Roebuck, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said.

And as Hughes correctly noted, the General Assembly often manages to find the cash for favored programs when the need is real and urgent enough.

Harris, a Millersville University graduate, who obtained a master's degree and is now pursuing a doctoral degree, added that the bill “would make getting a quality education a reality and the economic possibilities for our state endless. The Pennsylvania Promise is just one of many steps we need to take in order to build an inclusive and equal society."

In a Republican-controlled Legislature that is nearly pathologically averse to raising spending or taxes, getting this plan ushered into law is a heavy lift on the best of days.

But as Hughes, Roebuck and Harris correctly noted, their bills are at least a starting point for an important discussion. Pennsylvania lawmakers often talk a big game about producing an educated and skilled workforce.

But as is so often the case, there aren't the through lines between the talk and the actual policy.

These bills give lawmakers a chance to walk their talk. They should take it.


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