April 16, 2014

Senate Democrats Hold Hearing On College Access, Affordability

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee Wednesday held a roundtable discussion at Cheyney University near Philadelphia to address issues ranging from college affordability and access to the fairness of the state’s grant and loan programs.
“We all know how scarce and precious college funding resources are, but it’s imperative that we look into ways we can generate additional support dollars, streamline educational costs and make college more accessible and affordable for all of our kids,” said Committee Chair Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton).
Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia) added, “The growing trend for loan and grant programs to emphasize merit-based aid over needs-based aid has limited and strained the ability of underprivileged students and people of color to pursue a college education.
“Modern day grant and loan programs favor high income students over low income kids. It is time to re-examine how these programs are structured, balanced, as well as their finances, goals and fairness.”
In December, Sen. Williams introduced Senate Resolution 277 (sponsor summary), which would require the state Department of Education to study “gapping” and other strategies for keeping tuition low and aid available for low-income students. The measure is currently under consideration in the Senate Education Committee.
Sen. Shirley Kitchen (D-Philadelphia), who chairs the Philadelphia Senate Delegation, added, “A college education is often the very foundation for upward mobility, success and a realistic opportunity to pursue the American dream. With tuition fees skyrocketing by nearly 30 percent in the past five years, it is imperative that college aid programs keep pace and protect the financial viability of low income and working class families.”
A recent Pell Institute study revealed that only 8 percent of students in the lowest income quartile graduated from college compared to 73 percent of those in the highest quartile. Dating back to 1970, this gap between rich and poor has bulged by more than 30 percent.
Sen. Boscola praised the Philadelphia Delegation for being “true champions for underprivileged children and their right to a quality education.” She also credited the delegation members for their active role in the fight to restore higher education dollars during each of the first three Corbett Administration budgets.
Despite bipartisan efforts to restore dollars, spending on state-related colleges dropped by 18 percent in 2011-12 – and has remained stagnant ever since.
“Making matters even worse, Pennsylvania schools don’t make affordability any easier for low-income working families,” Sen. Boscola said. “Our public colleges are the sixth most expensive in the nation.
“There was a time when a good summer job was enough to defray most of one’s college costs. Sadly, that isn’t even enough to make a dent in what it costs today.”
Steve Hicks, president of the Association of PA State College and University Faculties, added that cuts and new limitations to federal aid programs such as Pell grants have “had a huge impact on college completion rates.”
Cheyney University senior Patricia Bell told the panel how she has known classmates over the years who were forced to abandon college despite how many jobs they worked and how much family support they had, they were not able make financial ends meet.
She added that Pennsylvania students have the second highest student debt in the nation.
Boscola, Kitchen and Williams, were joined at the hearing by Senators LeAnna Washington (D-Philadelphia), Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), and John Wozniak (D-Cambria).
The roundtable panel also included: Dr. Michelle Howard-Vital, President, Cheyney University; Dr. Tara Kent, Dean of Keystone Honors Academy, Cheyney University; Christine Zuzack, Vice President of Grants & Special Programs, PHEAA; Lois Johnson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, PA State System of Higher Ed; Patricia Bell, student, Cheyney University; Sam Hirsch, Vice President of Student Affairs, Community College of Philadelphia; Steve Hicks, President, APSCUF; Stephen Burd, Senior Policy Analyst, New America Foundation; Don Francis, President, Association Of Independent Colleges And Universities of Pennsylvania; and Christopher Hanlon, Director of Financial Aid, Albright College.