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A four-year college, strictly educational

Pa. proposal envisions no frills and reduced bills.

As college students face mounting college debt, leading education officials yesterday proposed a new kind of higher education institution that would offer a "low-cost, no frills" bachelor's degree.

No sports teams. No extracurriculars. No super gymnasium or plum dorm room.

No extras at all.

The schools instead would offer an accelerated, year-round program much like a community college, but they would offer four-year degrees as opposed to two-year associate degrees.

The State Board of Education yesterday approved the proposal, which would have to be funded in the state budget before such schools can open.

"Somewhere, there should be a no-frills option. Let's see if there's a market for a Yugo or a Ford," board chairman Joseph Torsella said.

"This is really just an idea. What form it takes hasn't been decided," said Jim Buckheit, the board's executive director.

The board sets policy for all colleges in the state system and community colleges.

The recommendation, along with nine others calling for more financial aid for students, additional and expanded community colleges and more money for state colleges, will be given to Gov. Rendell, the House and Senate for consideration, he said.

The state board also committed to remove costly and unnecessary mandates from colleges and regulate on-campus marketing by credit-card companies in an effort to help limit student debt.

The report follows a months-long look by the board's higher education council on college affordability. The council held public hearings around the state and heard from students about their struggles to pay for college and their desire for a lower-cost option.

Pennsylvania is the sixth-most-expensive state in the country to get a college education, a report released by the board in November showed.

Of 10 states in the study, students in Pennsylvania graduated with the second-highest debt on average - $19,047. Only in New Jersey was the average debt higher: $19,294.

The issue also has attracted the attention of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which will release a report today warning that the state suffers from an underprepared workforce that can't afford a college education.

The state board's focus on affordability comes in part because of the worsening economy, but that economy also has caused the state this year to cut funding to the 14 state universities, including West Chester and Cheyney, and the four state-related schools, including Temple, Penn State and Lincoln.

Rendell has not yet said whether he will increase funding for higher education in his budget address, to be given the first week of February.

"The affordability of higher education is certainly a concern for the governor. He is constrained by the fiscal reality in which he finds the commonwealth," said Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo. "But having said that, he will certainly take a look at the report and try to determine what response, if any, is merited."

Both minority and majority chairs of the House and Senate education committee serve on the state board and participated in yesterday's discussion, Buckheit noted.

Area college officials offered little input on the idea for a "no-frills" college, saying they wanted to hear more about it. On the issue of cost, they defended their schools' tuition rates.

"Temple remains a great value among leading urban research institutions in this country," said Kenneth Lawrence Jr., senior vice president for government, community and public affairs.

Response to report

Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education that oversees the 14 state-owned schools, said the report is misleading.

The 14 state-system schools have had the lowest cost increases of any state system in the country over the last five years, he said, citing a study out of Washington state. Over a five-year period concluding in 2007-08, costs went up 21.8 percent, much lower than the national average of 47.8 percent, he said. Tuition, fees, room and board and textbook costs currently total about $13,500 annually.

"We certainly believe we are doing everything we can, given our resources, to keep the cost of education as low as possible," Marshall said.

Heavy debt load

But debt continues to plague students, a survey released by the state board yesterday showed.

Nearly three-fourths of students said they felt "overly burdened" by their student debt. Nearly two-thirds of graduates said the same. But few - only 5 percent - reported defaulting on their loans.

Current students reported that they had borrowed on average $22,807, while graduates said they had taken out $33,833. More than 20 percent used credit cards as a form of borrowing.

Families of current students borrowed $19,485 on average, while families of graduates took out $33,788.

About 5,100 college students and 1,600 graduates were surveyed. Nearly half were at the state-owned universities, 29 percent at the state-related institutions, 16 percent at community colleges, and the rest at private universities and other schools.


The State Board of Education is proposing a new type of "no frills" college that would feature the following:

SOURCE: Pennsylvania State Board of Education