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Proposed scholarships would make studying in Pa cheaper.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative and public service journalism that holds power accountable and drives positive change in Pennsylvania. Sign up for our free newsletters.

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania lawmakers are entering budget season with a shared goal of making it more affordable to attend college in the commonwealth. As with most issues in the Capitol, Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about how to handle this.

The Republican majority in the Senate is creating new grants aimed at “in-demand” professions, offering money in exchange for graduate students living in Pennsylvania.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has set his sights on Pennsylvania’s 10 state-run and 15 community colleges, proposing a major overhaul that would combine the two systems, boost funding and ultimately cap tuition for many families at $1,000 per semester.

What exactly will end up in the budget due June 30 is unclear, although state Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, chairman of the state House Education Committee, said lawmakers universally agree that college should be more affordable .

“Budget season is always funny,” Schweyer told Spotlight PA. “I’m not going to make any predictions, but I don’t dislike the Senate Republicans’ ideas and there’s a lot of room for us to work together.”

Shapiro has often noted that Pennsylvania ranks 49th out of 50 in direct state appropriations for higher education. Funding per full-time public student began declining in the early 2000s as enrollment increased. Funding then fell during the Great Recession, amid deep budget cuts as federal aid evaporated and states’ tax returns slumped.

This reduction is visible on several budget lines, according to a Spotlight PA analysis. Lawmakers allocated more than $500 million for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in the 2008-2009 budget before cutting it by nearly $100 million. State funding for the system did not reach the $500 million mark again until 2022.

These decisions have led to tuition increases, budget cuts, or both at Pennsylvania schools. For PASSHE, this meant that six schools had to be merged into two in 2022.

Riley Bennett, a 20-year-old cybersecurity student, just completed his freshman year at Slippery Rock University, which is part of the PASSHE system.

He chose Slippery Rock in part because the tuition and fees were affordable: $22,000 per year. After scholarships and financial aid, he is responsible for about $10,000 a year to attend college, which he must pay for through loans and a job stocking shelves at a grocery store.

Still, he will leave school with between $20,000 and $40,000 in debt, which will require a delicate balancing act once he graduates given the rising costs of housing, utilities and food.

“I feel like there’s a lot of stigma around loans,” he said. “I have taken out loans, but I know people who have not gone to college for fear of loans.”

Pennsylvania’s public colleges are among the most expensive of their kind in the country; By one estimate, the state has the fifth most expensive public university system in the entire country.

That number includes Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt and Temple — semi-private entities that receive public funding each year — and a spokesperson for PASSHE said it has kept the total price for students essentially the same since 2018.

By the time Shapiro took office last year, funding for Pennsylvania’s state universities had already begun to increase slightly. Between former Governor Tom Wolf’s last budget and Shapiro’s first, PASSHE’s annual budget increased by $110 million, to $585 million for the budget year ending June 30.

In his second budget, Shapiro pitched a further increase, along with an ambitious structural overhaul to “ensure that our new system is the most affordable path to a postsecondary degree or diploma.”

“For most of the last decade, the conversation around higher education in this building has been about subtraction. Subtract resources. Deduct services. Subtract access,” Shapiro said in his February budget speech. “We must play a game of addition, not subtraction, and focus on building a world-class higher education system.”

A March government report noted that other states with similar uniform systems allow students to transfer credits across the system (most community colleges currently participate in a system that allows students to transfer certain credits), and offer a common application that can be used for all schools and allows cross-registration across schools.

To do this, Shapiro called for combining the ten state colleges with the fifteen community colleges into one system under shared management, and then increasing state funding for the combined group by 15%.

Once the new structure is in place, Shapiro’s plan would cap tuition for PASSHE schools and community colleges at $1,000 per semester for students from middle-income families.

It would also increase the maximum grant per student from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency by $1,000.

State Senate Republicans rejected the restructuring out of hand.

“We are not interested in merging bureaucracies to create more bureaucracies,” Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said at a news conference in April. He will be charged with crafting his caucus’ budget pitch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He and his colleagues proposed creating two state-sponsored scholarships. Under one, out-of-state students would be eligible for up to $5,000 in scholarships per academic year that could be used at any college or university in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, out-of-state students with at least a 2.5 GPA would pay in-state tuition at PASSHE schools, a savings of anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 per year.

However, there are conditions attached.

Both programs would be available for four years to students pursuing “an approved field of study” including “agriculture, computer science, business, education, engineering, nursing, criminal justice” or any other program that could lead to employment in an “in-demand” occupation.”

The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency would define “in-demand occupations” in consultation with the Independent Fiscal Office, the Governor’s Office and the private sector.

Recipients would be required to secure a job in Pennsylvania related to their studies within one year and maintain it for 15 months each year they received the grant. If a graduate does not comply with the conditions, the grant will be converted into a loan and he will have to pay it back with interest.

Bennett, the Slippery Rock student, told Spotlight PA that he would like to stay in Pennsylvania after graduation. However, his degree likely won’t land him a job in his native Williamsport. He would prefer to be in a city like Harrisburg, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, but his job search could easily take him across state lines.

“If I find a job out of state that takes care of me, even if it’s out of state, that would probably be the job I go for,” Bennett said.

The GOP proposal is similar to one Wolf pushed unsuccessfully during his second term. The Democrat wanted to pay for it using a state fund that collects casino taxes on horse racing prizes, to the chagrin of the industry and its Republican allies in the Legislature.

Senate Republicans have not yet put a price tag on their proposal, according to Martin, who said in April that the amount “will be on the negotiating table.”

In a statement at the time, Shapiro spokesman Manuel Bonder did not comment on the details of the GOP proposal but said the administration was “pleased that lawmakers agree with Governor Shapiro that doing nothing is not an option.”

Ken Mash, president of the union representing faculty in the PASSHE system, credited Shapiro’s February budget speech with getting the ball rolling.

“He has brought attention to higher education like no governor in recent history,” Mash told Spotlight PA, arguing that Republicans felt compelled to respond to the governor’s pitch in February with a plan of their own.

Mash also said the state could think bigger than the programs proposed by both parties. A plan long championed by the union would provide tuition-free education at a PASSHE school to students from families earning less than $200,000 a year, covering all remaining costs after federal, state and institutional aid.

The plan, known as the PA Promise, has been sponsored for years by Senator Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia.

Hughes, Martin’s Democratic counterpart on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is concerned that tightly worded qualifications for new financial aid programs could widen existing inequities in the state’s K-12 education system.

For example, if a proposal encourages students to study the life sciences, but a student’s high school doesn’t have a strong biology or statistics program, “you’re going to be left out,” Hughes said.

“Accessibility and affordability in higher education has been a long-simmering issue,” Hughes told Spotlight PA.

The price tag of his counter-proposal is high: an older version with a lower income threshold cost $1 billion per year. But with a surplus of $14 billion, Hughes argued that “it would be a public and budgetary crime not to make strategic smart investments that can really make a difference.”

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, please pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountable journalism that delivers results.

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