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Commentary: Past time to provide affordable college in Pennsylvania

WITH THE ELECTION of Donald Trump, any national effort to create a pathway to an affordable college education is likely a distant dream. At the same time our economy requires a college credential to obtain a living-wage job, the cost of college makes earn

WITH THE ELECTION of Donald Trump, any national effort to create a pathway to an affordable college education is likely a distant dream. At the same time our economy requires a college credential to obtain a living-wage job, the cost of college makes earning a degree increasingly out of reach. The imperative of a college degree is deeply felt, as students across our country mortgage their futures by taking out ever-larger loans in their quest to obtain this holy grail. Indeed, research conducted by Temple's Sara Goldrick-Rab and summarized in her new book

Paying the Price

documents the appalling truth that many college students choose to spend their dollars on education, rather than food. And many drop out altogether.

Yet states have the power to act. In Pennsylvania, it is past time. As documented in a research brief written by my Research for Action colleagues, the cost of college in Pennsylvania is among the highest in the country and is certainly the highest in our region. Fully 70 percent of our students graduate from college with debt, which is on average nearly $34,000.

The reasons for our skyrocketing college costs are myriad. Historically, Pennsylvania has chosen not to invest directly in its public colleges and universities, and state investments per student have fallen 50 percent since 1990. As a result, in 2003, the tuition and fees paid by students and families surpassed state appropriations as the largest source of institutional revenue.

Another reason for high cost is a paucity of affordable state public universities. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is by far our most affordable four-year college option, with average tuition and fees of just under $10,000. Yet with only 14 universities in the system, PASSHE is not accessible to enough students. State-related universities - Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln - have filled the gap by creating over two dozen branch campuses across the state. Yet while they receive hundreds of millions of state dollars annually, these institutions are not held accountable for keeping tuition low. As a result, our state-related universities are the most expensive publicly supported universities in the nation. Average tuition and fees are over $16,000 - nearly double the national average.

While community colleges offer the most affordable path to higher education, with average tuition and fees of about $4800, Pennsylvania has too few - 14, compared to 58 in states like North Carolina. As a result, a large portion of the central and northern part of the state has no access to community college campuses or instructional sites at all.

Pennsylvania does provide some relief via the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which distributed nearly $460 million in grant aid during the 2013-14 academic year. Yet in the absence of adequate access to public higher education, a large proportion of these state dollars have been used to offset the cost of college in Pennsylvania's 114 private colleges and universities, which enroll over 368,000 students. The cost of a private college education in Pennsylvania is the fourth most expensive in the country, with average tuition and fees nearing $40,000. For too many students, state aid simply cannot fill the gap between tuition and ability to pay.

Here in Philadelphia, the situation is particularly dire. Philadelphia is the poorest large city in America, yet the path to a four-year degree is among the most expensive in the country. While Philadelphia does have its own community college, it does not have its own state university campus. As a result, even when students begin their education at Community College of Philadelphia, the cheapest pathway to a four-year degree within the confines of Philadelphia for most students costs just shy of $40,000. In contrast, it costs students in New York City less than half. And in Los Angeles, the path to a four year degree costs about $15,000. Notably, CCP has launched a last-dollar scholarship program for recent Philadelphia public school graduates, which promises to provide at least partial relief for some Philadelphia residents. But it alone will not solve the city's affordability crisis.

While I worked in the Rendell administration, we tried, but failed, to pass legislation to create a debt-free path to a college degree. Ten years ago, there were no examples to follow; we were charting new territory. But today is different. Several states such as Tennessee and Oregon have already enacted policies that provide debt-free community college. Other states such as New York have developed loan forgiveness programs, and many have adopted a broad range of college completion initiatives.

As other states move forward, Pennsylvania cannot afford to stand still. Legislators and policymakers can act now to develop and execute a comprehensive strategy to reduce the cost of college. A first step in that direction might be to commission a "costing out" study for public higher education to determine how much investment is needed to provide a high-quality, affordable pathway to college credentials for all Pennsylvanians. Pennsylvania should also consider developing a more centralized postsecondary governance structure to better distribute and oversee state dollars. And expansion of the state's community college sector would make college a real possibility to citizens who do not currently have access to affordable college options.

The research is clear - a college credential is a ticket to economic prosperity. Providing an affordable pathway for Pennsylvanians will pay for itself over the long run by improving quality of life across the board, infusing the economy with more disposable income and attracting the businesses that will provide the high-wage jobs our citizens need. Let's get started. It's past time to act.

Kate Shaw is executive director of Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit education research organization. She served for three years as the deputy secretary of postsecondary and higher education in the Pennsylvania Department of Education in the Rendell administration.