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Corbett is Right on Higher Education: State Support Should Follow the Student

By L. Jay Lemons
President of Susquehanna University
Past chair of the board of directors of the Association of Independent Colleges of Pennsylvania  

The Patriot News
April 15, 2011


I agree with Gov. Corbett’s philosophy — put forth in his budget proposal — that a new model for higher education must ensure that the funding dollars follow the student. I understand why the governor had to propose cuts to help balance this year’s state budget.

It is unfortunate, but unavoidable, that some of those cuts will affect all of higher education. The cuts will likely mean even higher tuition costs for students, which will especially impact low- and middle-income students. This calls on those of us in higher education and government to find new ways to maintain and increase access to college for those students.

We in private higher education have been fundraising for student scholarships for years and the vast majority of those institutional grants go to students who can demonstrate need. At Susquehanna University, we are providing $31 million in institutional financial aid in the current fiscal year, making it possible for students from all income levels to attend.

The most effective way for the commonwealth to partner with higher education is to embrace Gov. Corbett’s model of having more state support follow the student. The best way to do this is through PHEAA (Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency) grants.

PHEAA grants target low- and middle-income students and provide direct state support to the student. These grants create the greatest access to higher education for those students because the money can be used at any college or university in Pennsylvania. At Susquehanna University, nearly 24 percent of our students received PHEAA grants for the 2010-11 academic year.

Students choose a college or university for a variety of reasons and cost is just one of them. The choice of a major area of study is another, and location is often high on a student’s list. How welcome or — at home — a student feels on a campus, the size of the campus and its classes as well as the likelihood that they can complete a quality program of study in a timely way all factor into the decision.

It is important that Pennsylvania provide students the greatest access possible to the largest number of schools. The best way to do this is to funnel as much state support as possible directly to the students. This is especially critical as the maximum PHEAA grant has been reduced by $1,159 since 2007-08, when the maximum was $4,700. Further reductions are expected for 2011-12.

In addition, changing the eligibility criteria would ensure that as many families as possible receive the financial aid they need. It is especially important that more middle-class students receive PHEAA grants so they have greater access and choice as well. Too often, middle-class families believe they must limit their choice of schools because they don’t qualify for state or federal student aid.

As the economy improves in coming years, I encourage the governor and Legislature to consider dedicating more of the state’s support for higher education to student grants. A relatively small amount of money would have a big impact on increasing access to college for low- and middle-income students.

For instance, taking just 12 percent of the institutional aid reduction proposed in this year’s budget — about $78 million — and putting that toward PHEAA grants would provide another $500 to all PHEAA grant recipients, assuming 155,839 grants, or provide another 39,000 students with $2,000 grants or provide another 19,500 students with $4,000 grants.

These are meaningful amounts of money for middle-class families that are looking hard for ways to send their children to college. We applaud Gov. Corbett for his forward-looking philosophy and encourage him and other state leaders to increase the amount of PHEAA funding.

 




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