“Play-It-Forward” Bill Would Allow Pennsylvania College Students and Grads to Gamble Their Debts Away

Graphic assembler: Kevin Mahoney

The story of student debt in Pennsylvania is pretty simple.  In 2011, Governor Corbett proposed to cut the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in half, but an outcry from students, faculty and other stakeholders within the State System of Higher Education reduced the slashing to twenty percent.  Then, in the three years following Corbett’s original attack on higher education, the Pennsylvania General Assembly continued its 30-year trend of defunding — cliff-funding — public higher education by doing absolutely nothing.

As a result of the continued cliff-funding of PASSHE, universities lost millions of dollars more in funding due to inflation.  To offset those cuts on the university level, students witnessed increased tuition rates and administrations at some schools decided to go through multiple rounds of retrenchment, which is fancy-speak for laying off college professors, and eliminating academic programs.  Over this four-year period, students and faculty from the state system were left waiting for their Superman.

Who would step up to the plate for students and faculty members?

Faculty members are still waiting, but it seems Pennsylvania has its own self-styled Superman who claims to want to save the day for students.

That Superman is none other than State Senator and Philadelphia Mayoral Candidate Anthony Hardy Williams.  Last week Anthony Williams corralled a number of his senate colleagues and introduced a 13 bill packet that focuses on putting money into the hands of some students while doing nothing to solve the structural crises facing PASSHE.  The legislative load includes: expanding online education, STEM incentives, financial literacy, “fly in 4” and some other bills that arguably have some merit.

As a former PASSHE student who is carrying $30,000 in student debt, you could say I had some interest in these bills. However, as I read through the packet, one bill stood out as extremely sadistic – one authored by “Superman” Anthony Williams himself. In the press packet Williams’ office released before his press conference, there was a bill titled “Free Tuition Lottery.”  Given Anthony Williams’ connections to the charter school industry in Philadelphia, you would be forgiven if you thought the bill proposed a charter school-type of lottery system. That is, you place your name into a pool with PHEAA, the state agency that administers college grants to Pennsylvania residents attending college in the Commonwealth, and voila, magic.  Your name is picked out of the lottery and Superman saves you.  You!  You were picked for free college tuition.

That’s how I thought it worked.  But when you actually read Williams’ co-sponsorship memo, that Superman narrative morphs into a scene straight out of the Hunger Games.

The proposed legislation hasn’t been formally introduced as a bill…yet. It is being passed around the senate in the form of a co-sponsorship memo, which is a document that lawmakers use to recruit their colleagues’ support for a bill.  The language in Williams’ co-sponsorship memo (SCO 430) should drop jaws.

Williams starts by acknowledging that Pennsylvania “is one of the most expensive states in the nation to go to college in as a state resident.” That’s true.  According to the Keystone Research Center, Pennsylvania is fourth in the country in student debt with students averaging $31,675, $30,000 for students attending public universities and 48th in the country in per capita funding.  He goes on to explain that “PHEAA was only able to offer an average of $3,151 per full-time student during the 2013-2014 school year.” Then Williams makes his move, saying, “we need to start thinking outside the box with new ways to encourage funding for higher education.”

District 12What’s this “outside the box” thinking Anthony Williams is asking legislators to sign onto?  Welcome to District 12:

My legislation will authorize PHEAA to create and operate a lottery fund that awards free tuition while simultaneously raising money for need-base grants that help low-income students afford a college education.

So instead of scratching tickets for granny, we can stroll into the local Wawa or Sheetz and scratch tickets for students.

Here’s the best part:

This lottery will award PLAYERS with either: (1) full or partial scholarships to pay for a current or prospective students student’s tuition at a Pennsylvania postsecondary institution that receives PHEAA State Grants [emphasis mine].

Or, wait for it…

Or loan forgiveness for students debt already incurred at such a postsecondary institution.

Raging Chicken Press was able to reach Anthony Williams’ office for comment earlier today. In an email, staffers confirmed that the bill’s name would be “Play it Forward.”  The bill’s name is a spinoff of the semi-progressive “Pay It Forward” idea. In Pay It Forward systems, like that one passed in Oregon in 2013, the state pays the upfront costs of college education at a state-run university. After graduation, students pay back the cost of their college education through a percentage of their paycheck.

According to Williams’s office, the bill asks the General Assembly to give PHEAA $20 million to establish a lottery pilot program. This “Play It Forward” lottery would run independent of the state operated lottery system.  Then, according to the email, PHEAA

must create a report to the General Assembly between 6 months to a year of the first lottery sale to assess the effectiveness of the program. If the General Assembly determines the program is successful, it may make it permanent. After six months to a year, PHEAA would have to present a report to the General Assembly for permanent approval.

How sadistic is this?  Anthony Williams introduces a bill whose name is a spinoff of a semi-progressive piece of legislation that actually offers a viable alternative to pay for public higher education, and then redefines students. No longer “students,” they are players.  P-L-A-Y-E-R-S. Players.  Let that word sink in for a couple of seconds.  For students who play, prizes under $500 will be awarded in cash, and prizes over $500 will be credited to the recipient. It gets better.  The winner of non-cash prizes can “receive the prize himself” or “play it forward” to someone else and “assign the prize to another designated recipient.”

30 percent of all revenue generated will go towards cash or non-cash prizes and the remaining 70 percent will go towards administrative costs or PHEAA need-based grants.

Instead of fixing the structural crisis that Governor Corbett allowed to occur within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education over his entire time in office, the Senator who called the press conference to fix this fucking mess introduces a bill that promotes gambling for prospective students and graduates shackled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.  As Will Bunch from the Philadelphia Daily News would put it, this is goes beyond fucking lame.

Explaining his six figure student loan burden, Philadelphia native and Montgomery County resident Andrew Geliebter fell into a situation familiar to many millennials.  Geliebter, who originally wanted to pursue a trades career, explained that he grew up in a lower middle class household and his parents did not have the means to contribute to his education.  Over the course of a five year period, he racked up over $150,000 in debt by attending five universities and only walking away with a 2 year paralegal degree from Manor College. Geliebter takes ownership for his situation because he was a young 18-year-old who received twice the amount of money he needed for his student loans and used that money to “feed myself, to secure housing, to enable myself to have a life while I went to school.”

When asked about Anthony Williams’ bill, Geliebter says “this lottery incentivizes students to continue feeding into this abusive system and has the audacity to masquerade as charity for low-income students.” And, Geliebter continued, “calling students players is actually the most honest part of the whole thing. Perhaps if we were called players when we sat down to sign off on $14,000 loans each semester, it would have been easier to question the legitimacy of the process.”

At the end of the co-sponsorship memo, Williams asks his colleagues to sign onto this legislation because “we as a Commonwealth can no longer afford to ignore the fact that too many Pennsylvanians are struggling to pay for college.”

This bill is part of a 13 bill packet that was introduced during a media event.  Not the rumor mill. Not in some comment overheard by a disgruntled staffer. No, Williams set up a press conference so he could show the world his latest stroke of brilliance.  In the case of Andrew Geliebter, maybe the financial literacy bill that is in this packet could have helped him. But, we must to go further than teaching high school students about student debt.  Are we supposed to look at this packet as an actual attempt to solve the problems facing graduates who are shackled with student debt; or, prospective students who will become shackled; or, the structural problems facing the State System of Higher Education?  Or was this just another lame idea by a lame leaderless party that was doing nothing more than waving their hands in the air saying “look at me!”

Over the coming weeks we plan on dissecting these bills line-by-line in order to answer that exact question.  As of right now, it’s not looking good.


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About Sean Kitchen 681 Articles
Contributor and Assistant Editor for the Raging Chicken Press. Stationed in Harrisburg covering politics in the capitol. You can send tips to sean@rcpress.org or reach me on twitter at @RCPress_Sean!
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