Millersville University

Students walk between classes on the Millersville University campus Thursday October 18, 2018. 

Pennsylvania legislators are again pitching a proposal to make college free for many low- and middle-income students.

On Wednesday, lawmakers reintroduced the Pennsylvania Promise Act, which would create a grant program to cover up to four years of tuition at a state-owned or state-related university or a community college for students with a household income of $110,000 or less. For students whose families earn $48,000 or less, room and board also would be included.

It would also provide need-based aid for adult learners seeking a higher education degree or certificate.

“We cannot continue to allow the government to break the promise to our young people,” state Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat and Millersville University graduate, said during a news conference Tuesday in Harrisburg.

Census data put Pennsylvania 47th in the country in per-capita funding for higher education. College students in Pennsylvania have the second-highest amount of undergraduate student debt — nearly $36,000 — according to data from The Institute for College Access and Success.

And tuition, for many, keeps rising.

Base in-state tuition for the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, for example, has increased 33 percent — from $5,804 to $7,716 — since 2010.

Despite that, last year’s Pennsylvania Promise proposal failed when the House and Senate versions stalled in both chambers’ education committees. This year’s bills — House Bill 244, which Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla, of Lancaster, has cosponsored, and Senate Bill 111 — are likely to have the same fate under the Republican-controlled legislature.

Political and financial hurdles

The General Assembly would need to raise perhaps up to $1 billion to fund the program, according to a Keystone Research Center and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center report on which the proposal is largely based.

The bills don’t outline how that money would be raised, but it would almost certainly require additional taxes, such as corporate net income tax, a natural gas severance tax, a higher income personal income tax or a wealth tax.

Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument, of Landisville, told LNP that the political and financial challenges that stood against lawmakers last year remain.

Aument, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he’s all for making college more accessible, but he “wouldn’t want a program to become a giveaway to higher education institutions.”

Perhaps a proposal incentivizing in-demand programs would garner more bipartisan support, he said.

“It’s also in our interest that these young people are employed and remain in Pennsylvania and become productive members of our communities,” he said.

Continuing the conversation

Sturla, who also cosponsored last year’s Pennsylvania Promise House bill, said the in-demand jobs Aument speaks of are exactly why these bills are necessary.

“We are stressed for an educated workforce in Pennsylvania,” he said in a phone interview, “particularly in skilled trades.”

Aument said he hopes to form a commission — perhaps within days — to have a “very thoughtful, broad conversation” about higher education funding. It would be similar to the basic education funding commission, which was created in 2014 and introduced the new basic education funding formula.

If all goes according to plan, Aument said, the commission should release a report and recommendations by Spring 2020.

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