Promises, Promises: Affordable College in Pittsburgh and Across Pennsylvania

Photo: "A Floor of Graduation Caps," by Raja Sambasivan, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Why not free college?”

Sen. Vincent J. Hughes asked this repeatedly when he introduced the Pennsylvania Promise to Pennsylvania’s state legislature earlier this year. If passed, the legislation — introduced as Senate Bill 1111 and House Bill 2444 — would cover college costs for many Pennsylvania residents.

“I’ve heard from far too many college students who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Sen. Hughes in a press release. “They’re starving and some can’t maintain stable housing throughout the school year. They need something like PA Promise to make college reality.”

This program would be a more ambitious version of a scholarship that already exists in the state’s second largest city. The Pittsburgh Promise, which started in 2007, grants students up to $5,000 per year to help pay for college. The statewide version, however, hopes to cover full tuition and fees.

Of course, Pittsburgh’s scholarship — totalling $20,000 over four years — still goes a long way to reducing student loans. And there’s no denying student loan debt is a major issue, especially in Pennsylvania, which has the highest average student loan debt in the nation. And that’s not because Pennsylvania is poorer than other states: the Commonwealth’s median household income is just below the national average, according to the Census Bureau.

The Pittsburgh Promise reduced the amount of student loan debt Pittsburgh CAPA alumna Shannon Chavez had when she graduated from Duquesne University. Hopefully, a statewide version can help reduce student loan debt across Pennsylvania. But to get a sense of how the Pittsburgh Promise would work statewide, it’s important to understand how the two programs differ.

Both are “last-dollar” scholarships, meaning they cover balances left over after other eligible scholarships are accounted for. And both have the same basic goal: boost access to post-secondary education by reducing costs. But there are plenty of differences in where the money comes from, where it can be used, and who’s eligible to use it.

How they’re funded

When it comes to providing funding for these proposals, the first question most people ask is: Where does the money come from?

In Pittsburgh, the money comes from grants and fundraising efforts, and it’s managed by a board of directors. The Pittsburgh Promise started in 2007 with a $100 million grant from UPMC. According to a 2007 Post-Gazette story, that grant was a way to showcase the nonprofit giant’s benefit to its community and avoid scrutiny from the IRS.

“[Hospitals] are always looking to do things for the community, which is a good thing — philanthropy is a good thing,” says Dr. Robert P. Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “But the underlying causes should be teased out.”

Nevertheless, that grant formed an organization that has since raised another $100 million through foundation, corporate and individual donations, according to the Pittsburgh Promise website.

The statewide version would be publicly funded through tax dollars. Beyond that, however, there isn’t much detail on where the Pennsylvania Promise funding would come from.

“We don’t want to get locked into the funding side of the equation at this particular moment,” said Sen. Hughes at his June press conference. “The idea is to move the conversation and get people talking about the notion, and the idea, of free and affordable college for Pennsylvania students.”

A January 2018 report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and the Keystone Research Center lists some ideas for where the money could come from. According to researchers, the Pennsylvania Promise would cost:

  • One fourth of the revenue raised from increasing the Pennsylvania personal income tax rate by one percentage point. . .
  • About half of the revenue raised by a progressive tax proposal that cuts the personal income tax rate on wages and interest while raising it on the income derived from wealth. . .
  • Roughly the money raised by a severance tax like West Virginia’s. . . [or]
  • The amount raised by a 0.054 percent flat tax on financial wealth (“net worth”) — $540 annually for a taxpayer with $1 million in financial assets.

What they cover

As mentioned earlier, the Pittsburgh Promise provides students up to $5,000 per year to cover tuition, fees, room, board, and books. This can cover up to four years of post-secondary education, for a total of $20,000. According to the Pittsburgh Promise website, students can use these funds at “any accredited college, university, trade, or technical school in Pennsylvania.” The scholarship cannot be used for graduate level courses.

The Pennsylvania Promise, on the other hand, aims to completely cover up to four years of tuition and fees for Pennsylvania residents. However, students wishing to take advantage of this program would be restricted to PASSHE schools, state-related schools, and public community colleges.

Who’s eligible

The Pittsburgh Promise is available to high school seniors who live in the City of Pittsburgh and have attended Pittsburgh Public Schools (or its charters) continuously since the beginning of ninth grade. Students also need to meet attendance and GPA requirements, as outlined on the Pittsburgh Promise website.

Eligibility for the Pittsburgh Promise isn’t income-based, but the Pennsylvania Promise would be. The proposed legislation would pay tuition and fees for recent high school graduates with a family income less than or equal to $110,000 per year. Those with annual family incomes of $48,000 or less would also qualify for funding to cover room and board, according to Sen. Hughes’ website.

Additionally, Hughes wants everyone — not just recent high school graduates — to be able to benefit from the Pennsylvania Promise. That’s why the bills hope to provide additional funding to “adults seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials,” among other benefits.

Why not free college?

For students in Pennsylvania wondering how they’re going to afford increasingly expensive college educations, there’s no denying the Pennsylvania Promise sounds like a dream come true.

Unfortunately, even the bills’ biggest supporters say the odds of free college in Pennsylvania are extremely low. Kenneth Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, is one of them.

“I’m not Pollyannaish. I don’t think this is going to happen tomorrow or in this budget but if we don’t start the conversation nothing will change,” he told the Tribune-Review in June.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a separate program into law late June to give Pennsylvanians a head start on college savings. That law established the Keystone Scholars Program, which will grant $100 toward a college savings fund to every baby born on or after January 1, 2019, in Pennsylvania.

According to the Morning Call, that investment is expected to grow to about $200 by the time children reach college age.

It’s better than nothing, but $200 won’t even cover one semester’s worth of technology fees at PASSHE schools — let alone begin to touch tuition. And if Pennsylvania doesn’t start investing more in its students, tuition and fees will continue to increase.

 

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