Pennsylvania’s tuition-free college proposal meets resistance

By Victoria Lavelle

College students rally for debt-free college. Photo by Clem Murray/TN

Pennsylvania’s young adults continue shouldering most of the expense while accumulating insurmountable debt to attend community colleges and public universities, so state legislators universities, so state legislators started exploring new ways to make college more affordable statewide in 2018.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, (D-Philadelphia) and Pennsylvania State Rep. James Roebuck, (D-Philadelphia) introduced bills to the state’s General Assembly in Harrisburg last June — while leaders in Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education voted in July to increase tuition for in-state students by 3 percent.

Dubbed the “Pennsylvania Promise,” Hughes and Roebucks the proposed legislation’s sets to expand access and affordability to area community colleges and state-owned and state-related universities by reducing student debt and assisting low and middle-income families with paying for higher education.

Pointing to research estimating 63 percent of new job opportunities in the state will require a college education by the year 2020, Hughes emphasizes that currently less than 38 percent of Pennsylvanians are eligible applicants with the qualified education to fill those jobs.

“There is a pressing need for reinvestment in postsecondary education and job-skill training a large body of economic research reflects that slacking educational attainment translates to lower wages and incomes for individuals and slower economic growth for regions,” Hughes states on his official website. “The Pennsylvania Promise has the potential to transform people’s lives, enrich entire communities and strengthen the state’s foundation bustling with productivity, opportunity, with a prosperous economy. The nations race for raising incomes and increasing opportunity hinges critically on access to post-secondary education and training. If Pennsylvania does not expand access to higher education to more of its citizens, the Commonwealth’s economy will suffer and living standards will fall behind growth elsewhere.”

According to college rankings by U.S. News and World Report, Pennsylvania ranks 47th on post-graduation debt, 48th for costly tuition and fees, and dead last with a 50th ranking for higher education. Currently, per capita funding for higher education in Pennsylvania ranks 47th in the nation.

The increase in state spending required under the Pennsylvania Promise Bill would raise Pennsylvania’s rank to 36th, according to data collected by the Keystone Research Center and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center in June 2017.

The Pennsylvania Plan aims to cover two years of college tuition and fees for recent high school graduates and adults seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials by attending one of the state’s 14 community colleges.

Furthermore, it would also cover four years of tuition and fees at a state-owned or state-related university for students with a family income of $110,000 or less per year. Students whose family income is $48,000 or less would also be eligible for assistance with costs associated with student housing.

Based on studies conducted by the Keystone Research Center and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, the proposed plan would be administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), according to a sponsorship memo drafted by the minority chair of the state House Education Committee, James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia).

With a modest and smart investment, the Keystone Research Center predicts that Pennsylvania can build a more prosperous future for its citizens and reinvigorate the American Dream in every corner of the state.

On the flip side, there are reasons for concern regarding tuition-free college according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSC), including poor academic track record of community college attendees, the possible bleak economic growth implications from financing so-called free college, and also issues stemming around fairness.

That, in turn, contributes to the fact that more than a third of students who start college still haven’t earned degrees after six years, the NSC reports, often piling up loan debt with no payoff.

College at a discount?

Recent data reflects that 47 percent of community college enrollees drop out of school, while only 27 percent graduated, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

“The idea of tuition-free college in Pennsylvania sounds like a noble cause, yet there are also a few realities to consider,” DCCC communication of arts major Jerome Jenkins said. “The undeniable truth is that nothing in life is really free. Though a select group of folks may benefit from tuitionfree college, it’s important to remember that someone, somewhere else will be footing the bill in order to provide free college opportunities.”

As of January 2019, the Pennsylvania Promise bill currently has 23 cosponsors that consists of 22 Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Thomas Murt, (R-Hatboro), and it is presently awaiting consideration in the House Education Committee.

Contact Victoria Lavelle at

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