Higher Education

Publicly funded colleges are essential to realizing the American dream for individual Pennsylvanians and to growing prosperity for the state as a whole. Rising tuition, however, results in fewer low-income and middle-income students attending college—and more of those who attend have crushing amounts of debt when they leave. The Pennsylvania Promise “free tuition” plan would make public colleges in our state affordable again.

Issue Basics

Public funding for higher education is critical to both the success of individuals and to the prosperity of our Commonwealth as a whole.

Our research shows that publicly-funded colleges in Pennsylvania are essential to both realizing the American dream for individuals and creating prosperity for communities. Sixty-five percent of Pennsylvania’s college student social mobility “success stories” attended Pennsylvania’s public colleges or state-related universities. And communities with a higher percentage of college graduates grow faster and have higher wages than those with a lower percentage.

The cost of attending public colleges has been on the rise. Tuition and fees at Pennsylvania’s public colleges has gone up 66% since 2000-01 after adjusting for inflation. These rising costs have resulted in a decline in attendance of low- and middle-income students and a crushing amount of debt for those who do attend. In fact, LendEDU ranked Pennsylvania number one in the nation for highest student debt.

Tuition is going up at public colleges because our state has low and falling state support for public higher education. Since 2000, state funding for higher education is down by 25% in inflation-adjusted dollars. Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 states for per capita investment in higher education.

There is another way! The Pennsylvania Promise plan has been introduced as legislation that would significantly decrease costs of attending one of PA’s 14 community colleges, 14 state system colleges or 4 state-related universities. The plan would: cover two years of tuition and fees for any recent high school graduate enrolled full-time at one of Pennsylvania’s community colleges (regardless of income); cover four years of tuition and fees for recent high school grads with a family income less than $110,000 per year accepted at a state system college; provide four years of grants ranging in amount depending on family income for students accepted into a state-related university; and provide grants to adults without a college degree who have a family income less than $110,000 per year with priority given to those seeking in-demand skills and industry-recognized credentials. Passing this legislation will make college affordable once again and reinvigorate Pennsylvania’s public schools as engines of upward mobility.


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