The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency has been trying its darndest to keep the specifics of a nearly $900,000 tab from questionable “business retreats” locked away from a public that deserves to know how its state-run loan agency works.
Thankfully, lawmakers might have a key.
State Reps. Kevin Blaum (D., Luzerne) and Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) recently introduced bipartisan legislation with 11 other representatives to heighten the level of accountability and transparency at PHEAA, which manages billions of dollars for student loans.
The legislation was likely driven by a dubious lawsuit PHEAA filed against reporters from the Harrisburg Patriot-News, Associated Press and a Pittsburgh television station who asked to see receipts from business retreats PHEAA has taken since 2000.
The retreats, to as far as California, have typically been at resorts with amenities like massages and golf courses. One three-day sojourn this summer, to a four-star resort near Pittsburgh, carried a bill of more than $130,000.
The agency said it sued because releasing the numbers would reveal “trade secrets.”
House Bill 2036, referred yesterday to the Committee on State Government, basically says that claim will not wash. The proposed legislation would require PHEAA to open up its financial information to other lending companies, state legislators and members of the public who have a legitimate reason to pry. For a legitimate reason, see paragraph one.
The bill also would make PHEAA give its profits to an independent agency that would turn around the extra cash in the form of grants for generally poor college students, allowing the agency less money for seemingly extravagant planning sessions.
And the bill would, by increasing competition, allow other lending groups to chip away at PHEAA’s control of the student-loan market. Seems as if the proposal makes enough sense to benefit students.
Granted, the legislation doesn’t have a ton of supporters and, at least at such an early stage, it’s hard to gauge if the bill has a chance of becoming law. Either way, Blaum, Turzai and others have the right idea.
Said Turzai in a press release: “We want the process to open as many doors of opportunity as possible for Pennsylvanians.”
With tuition prices spiking every year and an overly secretive student-loan agency, it’s reassuring a handful of legislators are trying to shove open the doors of competition – which are the same ones PHEAA apparently wants slammed shut.