Low-income, in-state students could receive up to about $7,700 in tuition aid, plus room and board, per year, if legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly passes.
Both Senate Bill 111 and House Bill 244, titled the PA Promise Act, propose providing state tuition assistance for low-income Pennsylvania residents who attend state-owned and state-related community colleges and universities. The legislation would provide aid to students whose families make $110,000 or less per year, plus free room and board to students in families that make $48,000 or less per year.
The legislation is estimated to cost around $1 billion per year, according to a January 2018 report written by The Keystone Research Center, a left-of-center think tank that argued the need for re-investment in Pennsylvania’s post-secondary education. The state’s current budget for 2019-20 only sets aside about $310 million for grants to students.
The bills do not outline a way to pay for the program, though, which was a “strategic decision” so that the General Assembly and Governor could agree on revenue sources, a spokesperson for state Sen. Vincent Hughes wrote in an email.
The Keystone Research Center’s report, co-authored by Mark Price, a labor economist for the center, suggested the state pay for the program with revenue from a natural gas tax or personal income tax increase across Pennsylvania.
“You’re delivering a substantial amount of aid to a large group of students, especially at an institution like Temple, which tends to serve a lower and middle-income population of students,” Price said.
“The rapid increase in student loan debt for different generations of students often is a burden on their spending later in life,” he added.
Pennsylvania has the second-highest average student loan debt in the country, totaling an average of $36,854 per 2017 graduate, according to The Institute For College Access and Success. Temple’s average student debt for 2017 graduates was $38,108.
The legislation would provide last-dollar assistance to eligible students, meaning whatever students still need after receiving federal, state or institutional financial aid would be covered by the fund, up to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education tuition rate, which is currently $7,716 per year.
PA Promise would have a positive long-term effect on the state economy by reducing student debt and increasing college enrollment, Price said.
The bill could benefit Temple students, said Cristopher Villicana, a sophomore music performance and Spanish major. Villicana didn’t receive enough financial aid to pay tuition past his freshman year without taking out private loans, he said.
“I was able to put myself through my first year because I got a lot of scholarships from my high school,” Villicana said. “…When I got to my second semester [of freshman year], it really hit how much money I was going to spend for the remaining three or four years.”
Villicana believes it’s the public’s responsibility to make higher education available to everyone by funding it through taxes, he said.
“If everyone was paying for it, it would inspire more people to actually go and get a degree because it would be attainable,” he said.
Alexia Dynda, a junior film and media arts major, would not mind paying higher taxes to subsidize college costs because she saw how her own high school in Reading, Pennsylvania benefits from high property taxes in the area, she said.
“Higher education is much more important for the progression of our economy than worrying about taxes right now,” Dynda said.
Two Philadelphia legislators, Hughes and state Rep. James Roebuck Jr., reintroduced the bill in their respective chambers earlier this month. They first proposed the bills in 2018, but they stalled in the General Assembly’s education committees.
“The data on food and housing insecure students is simply shocking,” Hughes said in a statement to The Temple News. “No college student should be forced to live in a car or skip meals, not to mention be saddled with crippling student loan debt. I strongly believe college students need a new deal and the Pennsylvania Promise is a start for that new deal.”
The two bills have again been referred to each chamber’s education committees.