Tom Wolf’s scholarship proposal targets low- and middle-income students at Pa. state schools

It’s a far cry from “free college for all” — or even “tuition-free public college” — but Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed Nellie Bly Scholarship echoes facets of those proposals.

The idea for the new scholarship is included in Wolf’s state budget proposal. He said it would help low- and middle-income students fill the gap between state and federal grants and the cost of college at one of the 14 state-owned universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

In a move designed to spark conversation and sure to generate opposition, Wolf proposed tapping the state’s casino-funded Horse Race Development Trust for $200 million a year to underwrite the program.

“Let’s bet on our kids instead of bankrolling race-horse owners and ensure the viability of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” Wolf said.

He estimated the fund would help underwrite college costs for about 25,000 students.

It is the most recent in a series of proposals designed to address increasing costs and declining enrollment in the State System, where enrollment plummeted 20% over the last decade.

Overall cost of tuition and fees, room and board and books at State System schools — including California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania — averages about $22,000 a year.

Financial aid gap

A study released last summer concluded students at those schools would have to work about 119 hours a week, or triple time at minimum wage, to work their way through college.

Alex Fefolt, a 21-year-old junior who is student body president at IUP, is a pre-law student studying history and political science. He has seen classmates drop out, not because they couldn’t do the work, but because they couldn’t cover costs.

“Many students at IUP or other State System schools have had difficulty paying for their education despite receiving different forms of financial aid,” Fefolt said.

At the State System schools, where about 70% of students have taken on federal loans, Wolf said the Nellie Bly Scholarship could make a significant dent among Pennsylvania college graduates who have the highest average student debt in the nation — $37,000.

The scholarship was named for Nellie Bly, the pen name for a pioneering investigative journalist in the late 1800s, who was born in Armstrong County as Elizabeth Cochran. In her youth, she was forced to drop out of IUP’s predecessor, the Indiana Normal School, when she couldn’t afford the costs.

Wolf said he is worried that still happens too often today. The governor previously championed programs to underwrite the cost of apprenticeship and trade school programs.

Over the last four years, lawmakers, economists and consultants have rolled out several proposals to make community colleges and public universities in Pennsylvania more affordable.

“Pennsylvania has some of the most expensive public colleges in the nation,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of “In Pennsylvania, residents may be able to get a lower cost education by going out of state or to private colleges. In most states, public college is cheaper.”

Wolf’s proposal is similar in some ways to the Excelsior Scholarship program in New York, Kantrowitz said. The Pennsylvania proposal, like the New York program, carries the condition that new graduates remain in the state one year for each year of scholarship aid.

‘Pretty awful’

Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, edited several studies that looked at changing the way Pennsylvania funds higher education. He called the state’s ranking — fourth from the bottom in the nation in funding higher education — “pretty awful.”

“I know that there are a lot of folks in the General Assembly who are beginning to understand that, one, we are really underfunding our public colleges and universities. That is why we’re seeing massive tuition increases and indebtedness among students and why fewer students are able to go to college. And, two, that having more Pennsylvanians having some kind of college or working training is really important,” Stier added.

Sam Smith, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, serves on the Board of Governors of the State System and the IUP Council of Trustees. He said he suspects there is growing support among lawmakers for another layer of scholarship aid for low- and middle-income students.

“Whether the legislature would go the whole way to the governor’s suggestion … well, there’s pros and cons to that,” Smith said.

Pushback from racing

Lawmakers like state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and others were quick to push back against any raid on the Horse Racing Development Trust. Bartolotta called that proposal a non-starter. Her district encompasses the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, which has a harness racing track in North Strabane Township.

“Robbing this fund, which benefits our local racing community, not only threatens a significant job creator in the area, but it also stifles tourism dollars and opportunities with 15 community fairs that have made horse racing a key attraction for decades,” Bartolotta said in a statement.

Scholarships aside, Smith said there is a need for fundamental change in a state with a shrinking pool of high school graduates who have more than 90 private colleges and universities as well as four state-related universities and 14 State System schools from which to choose.

“We’ve had no central planning and now we’re paying the price for that. … The State System can’t just keep doing what it’s doing and a little more money isn’t going to fix it,” said Smith, who is optimistic that a sweeping redesign underway within the State System may create a leaner, more-agile system of higher education.

‘Higher education … is broken’

Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, also sees a need for overarching changes in higher education in the state.

A targeted scholarship, aimed at low- and middle-income students, may stand a better chance of gaining traction in the legislature than a sweeping free tuition plan, she said. But it won’t begin to address the underlying issues that have led to the problem, she said.

“I think legislators are becoming increasingly aware that higher education in Pennsylvania is broken,” Finney said. She cited the creation of a sprawling system of Penn State branch campuses that now compete with the State System schools as one example of the problems that can come from a lack of central oversight.

She said there is a large unmet market for adult students who need to finish a degree or update their skills.

“Keeping students in state may not be as big a problem as they think,” Finney said. “For the most part, I think it’s responding to a new market and looking at this unnecessary competition we’ve created with all of these campuses.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Published at Fri, 14 Feb 2020 16:30:45 +0000

Source: Tom Wolf’s scholarship proposal targets low- and middle-income students at Pa. state schools.

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