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PA Senate Hearing at Cheyney University Focuses on College Access and Affordability

April 16, 2014

Pennsylvania lawmakers conduct a roundtable discussion at Cheyney University regarding a number of pressing issues including college affordability and the fairness of the state’s grant and loan programs

Pennsylvania lawmakers conduct a roundtable discussion at Cheyney University regarding a number of pressing issues including college affordability and the fairness of the state’s grant and loan programs

Knowing that obtaining a college education is becoming more and more costly, especially for underprivileged students from low income working families, some Pennsylvania lawmakers, Cheyney University representatives, and community stakeholders got together Wednesday, April 16, for a roundtable discussion at Cheyney's Marcus Foster Student Union.  The Senate Democratic Policy Committee held the event at the request of the Pennsylvania Senate’s Philadelphia Delegation.  On the agenda were a number of issues ranging from college affordability and access to a college education 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 Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton/Lehigh/Monroe).

Senator Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) 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, Williams introduced Senate Resolution 277, 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.

Cheyney University senior Patricia Bell, a Keystone Honors Academy (KHA) scholar, sat on the panel. She acknowledged that she was one of the lucky ones because, as a KHA student, she received a full scholarship to go to Cheyney. Without that, the first-generation college student might have struggled just like so many of her peers do who have trouble accessing a college education without federal or state assistance or some other form of aid. According to Bell, some of her classmates over the years were forced to abandon college despite how many jobs they worked and how much family support they had; they just were not able to make financial ends meet. In addition, she said, Pennsylvania students have the second highest student debt in the nation.

Sen. Shirley Kitchen (D-Phila.), 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.

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,” 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.”

Boscola, Kitchen and Williams, were joined at the hearing by Senators LeAnna Washington (D-Phila.), Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), and John Wozniak (D-Cambria).

The roundtable panel also included:

• 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
• Christopher Hanlon, Director of Financial Aid, Albright College