Carney: REACH would give kids hope

Michael Carney

Michael CarneyEstablished in 1993, the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally scholarship program allows any high school student within the state of Georgia who maintains at least a 3.0 grade point average to attend any state university within Georgia for free. The system is funded entirely by the revenue of the Georgia lottery and has assisted more than 900,000 students to date. The system has spread to neighboring southern states and has been successful in those states as well.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania consistently ranks among the most expensive state university systems in the country and one of the highest in student debt after graduation. A program like HOPE would be extremely beneficial for Pennsylvania’s broken system of 14 state and four state-related universities.

Between 1998 and 2003, Georgia was ranked No. 1 nationally for the strength of its academic-based student financial aid program. Because of HOPE, the number of high school students who met grade and attendance requirements increased by 50 percent, the Georgia SAT average increased 60 points and the most academically successful students became three times more likely to attend a university in the state.

Despite managing one of the most expensive state university systems in the country, attempts have been made within Pennsylvania to create a program similar to HOPE. Pennsylvania House Bill 467 was first proposed by State Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-13, in 2009 and is based on Georgia’s cutting-edge system. The bill would establish what Boyle called the REACH Program, an acronym for Reliable Education Assistance for College Hopefuls. Shortly after proposing the legislation, Boyle said “this legislation would increase academic performance across Pennsylvania and give numerous students from working-class families the opportunity to realize their dreams of going to college.”

Funding for HOPE is generated by lottery revenue, but since Pennsylvania’s lottery is already committed to funding programs for senior citizens, Boyle proposed that funding come from a different source. Casinos, Boyle said, generate enough revenue to fund his REACH program for years.

In 2011 alone, Pennsylvania collected more than $1.5 billion in taxes from casinos within the state. Boyle said only one fifth of those taxes would be needed to fund REACH for a year. If all of the state’s casino taxes were put toward REACH, it could be funded for half a decade.

A phenomenon known as the “brain drain” has affected various states in recent years, but it has hit hardest in Pennsylvania. This is characterized by a large body of individuals from a common area – like a county or state – who collectively leave said area to work or study elsewhere.

“Where have all the Pennsylvanians gone?” Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum asked in an article back in 1991. “To Florida. And Maryland, Virginia, California and Texas. Anywhere, it seems, where the jobs are more plentiful and the sun shines more warmly.”

On education, former Gov. Ed Rendell said, “We are the second oldest state in the nation because too many of our young people are leaving Pennsylvania behind for opportunities elsewhere.” More than a decade later, Rendell’s message still holds true.

Pennsylvania is a diverse state with millions of brilliant students. Mismanagement in Harrisburg and the massive marketing efforts to attract students to colleges across the nation have left Pennsylvania’s universities in their worst shape in history. Whether a long-term fix or a temporary solution, REACH can provide new opportunities to students who otherwise would not attend college and encourage current college students to take in interest in establishing their careers in their home state.

It may be years before REACH becomes a reality for Pennsylvania’s public universities, and even decades before the system benefits Temple and the state’s three other state-related universities. However, the risk of REACH failing in Pennsylvania is far less detrimental than what would likely occur if Pennsylvania continues down the path it is on.

Michael Carney can be reached at michael.carney@temple.edu.

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