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Panel gets message on high cost of college

When Patricia McGlone graduated from Boston College in 1973, the cost of a four-year higher education was $6,800, the single mother of four told a Senate Education Committee sitting in West Chester yesterday.

When Patricia McGlone graduated from Boston College in 1973, the cost of a four-year higher education was $6,800, the single mother of four told a Senate Education Committee sitting in West Chester yesterday.

How times change. McGlone's daughter Callie is majoring in entertainment management at Drexel University. By the time she graduates next June, the McGlones will have spent $192,000 on her schooling. The family still owes $100,000 and has considered selling its Downingtown home to pay off the loans.

"As her youngest child, it is extremely hard to hear her talk like that," Callie McGlone told the nine-member committee on higher-education affordability during a public hearing at West Chester University. About 60 people attended the session.

The committee is chaired by State Sens. Jeffrey E. Piccola and Andrew E. Dinniman, who have introduced three bills aimed at minimizing the financial impact of tuition on families.

The committee is sifting proposals geared to reverse a grim statistic detailed by Kathleen Shaw, deputy secretary in the state's office of Postsecondary and High Education: Pennsylvania is among the country's most expensive states in which to attend college.

Despite cost-cutting by many state and private colleges, the high rate of tuition is pricing many students out of the market. A further negative force is the economic downturn's effect on state-sponsored savings funds for college, called 529s. Some are down 40 percent, Shaw said.

"The 529s are taking a tremendous hit," Shaw testified. "The parents have done everything we've asked them to do, and they're falling apart. And it's not just in Pennsylvania. We're seeing this all over the country."

A tuition relief act championed by the Rendell administration would provide discounted tuition on a sliding scale, Shaw said. But that would be available only to students in the state's public universities and 14 community colleges. Sister R. Patricia Fadden, president of Immaculata University, a Catholic school, took issue with that.

"I urge you to make legislation for all Pennsylvania students," Fadden said.

Shaw said Rendell's plan was based on the need to reduce reliance on student loans, to prepare students to attend college so they don't need remedial courses, and to shorten the time needed to earn a degree. Many students arrive unprepared to learn in college and must take expensive remedial classes. One witness estimated that cost at $8 million a year.

Fadden said today's students want the best value for their dollar, not simply a prestigious college. Thus, many start at a community college for cost reasons and transfer to universities after two years.

The state already has approved 30 core course credits that can automatically be carried from one school to another, should a student transfer. Senate Bill 820, Dinniman's proposal, would boost that to 60 transferrable credits.

Dinniman and Piccola's plan also calls for tuition controls on all colleges in the state that receive public funding. A tuition increase could not exceed the increase in the Consumer Price Index published by the federal government each July.

John C. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the State System of Higher Education, said that by scrimping and saving, the system had kept the increase in tuition and fees to 15.3 percent over the last four years. Over the same time, the nation's colleges and universities raised their tuition and fees 29 percent, he testified, citing a study by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Cavanaugh warned, though, that the $200 million in savings over the last decade would not be sustainable.

Dinniman said that the public university system faced a budget shortfall of $26.5 million due to the expiration of some funding programs. He asked Cavanaugh if applying to the federal government for economic stabilization, or stimulus, money could be used to bridge that gap.

"It would be very helpful," Cavanaugh said.

Piccola said refinements to the Senate bill are being made as testimony is gathered. The legislation is expected to come up for a first reading in the committee on June 16, Piccola said.